SEATTLE — The skies above Safeco Field were clear and bright Saturday, which made it a lovely day — unless you were an outfielder.
Between them, the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals fought fly balls throughout the afternoon, with no problem more glaring than in the ninth inning, when Casper Wells lost one that turned into an RBI triple.
And there the Mariners were, their two-run lead suddenly cut to one, the tying run at third base with two outs and a crowd of 32,111 worried fans on the edges of their seats.
Tom Wilhelmsen took a breath, got a game-ending ground ball from Alex Gordon and used his 13th save to preserve Seattle’s 4-3 victory — it’s third win in a row.
“That ball was in a perfect spot, and as I got closer to it, the ball went right into the sun,” Wells said. “You can either run hard to the spot and try to find it or just keep gliding over and hope it comes out of the sun for you…”
Wells glided, but the ball didn’t come out and when he dove at the last moment, it fell in for a run-scoring triple. On the mound, Wilhelmsen saw what he thought was the third out tighten the game.
“It happens, you accept it,” Wilhelmsen said. “I said the other day, you want to save that intensity out there. Well, when that ball fell the intensity picked up a little.
“I can’t break focus there. I just go right after the next hitter.”
When he got him, Wells started breathing normally again.
“I’m glad Tom got that last out or my afternoon would have turned horrible,” he said.
Instead, that sunny day produced Seattle’s 46th win and Kevin Millwood’s first since May 23 — 11 starts and two months ago.
“Kevin has been consistent for us all season and it was good to get him a win,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s done his job, we just haven’t gotten him the results.”
Now 4-6 with a 3.90 earned-run average, Millwood’s 20th start turned out to be a six-inning production in which he allowed only one run.
“My fastball was working early and I used the breaking ball more late,” he said. “We’ve had some pretty good starting pitching lately, and you never want to be the guy who breaks the run up.”
As for all starting pitchers, once Millwood takes the mound he can control just so much — the opposing team, for instance. Behind him, the offense is out of his hands.
Matched against veteran Bruce Chen, the resolute crafty left-hander, the Mariners fell behind in the first inning, 1-0, then spent two innings looking at all manner of off-speed junk.
Jesus Montero singled on a changeup in the first inning, going down low to punch the pitch into left field. When he came up two innings later, Wells was on first base with two out.
“I was sitting on something slow, because that’s what he’d been throwing,” Montero said. “He threw me a changeup that looked like a fastball, but I threw my hands out there and, thank God, hit it hard.”
Montero hit the pitch into the Kansas City bullpen for a 2-1 lead.
Kyle Seager doubled on a towering fly to left field that Gordon fought the whole way, only to have it glance off his glove. Miguel Olivo’s opposite field single rolled through the hole at second and drove Seager in: 3-1.
Working efficiently, that was the lead Millwood took into the seventh inning, before he gave up back-to-back singles to Brayan Pena and Jeff Francoeur.
Olivo threw Pena out trying to steal, but after Francoeur’s single, Wedge went to his bullpen and left-hander Oliver Perez.
Facing first baseman Eric Hosmer, Perez got a ground ball double play to end the inning, and ran off the field pumping his fist.
The Royals cut that lead in half in the eighth inning, when Gordon doubled and Alcides Escobar tripled. Brandon League forced the Royals to strand the tying run at third base.
When the Mariners promptly loaded the bases with no one out in their half of the inning, that crowd was roaring for them to break the game open.
Pinch-hitter John Jaso grounded into a force out at the plate, moving the game to Mike Carp, batting .180.
“You remember last August when I drove in all those runs (25)? That’s how I did a lot of it, with a man at third base and less than two outs,” Carp said. “My job there is one thing: get at least one run in.”
Looking for a pitch he could get airborne, Carp flied to left field, plenty deep enough to chase home pinch-runner Chone Figgins.
“That was a big RBI,” Wedge said.
It gave closer Wilhelmsen a 4-2 lead in the ninth, and two outs later, with a man on first after a single, he got a fly ball that could have ended it at that score.
Wells couldn’t see it or catch it.
Wilhelmsen kept the last out on the ground, taking no chances.