SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners left spring training with a bullpen comprised of youth and uncertainty, especially with closer David Aardsma working his way back from hip surgery.
A week into the season, those relievers came together and reeled off a streak of 17 straight scoreless innin
Then Chris Ray pitched the eighth on Wednesday, hung a slider to Jose Bautista and everything unraveled, especially a one-run Mariners lead against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Bautista’s three-run homer was the launching point to a six-run inning by the Blue Jays, who beat the Mariners 8-3 in the final game of the opening homestand at Safeco Field.
The rally overhauled a 2-1 Mariners lead provided by Justin Smoak’s opposite-field home run in the sixth inning and 62⁄3 strong innings by starting pitcher Jason Vargas, who allowed five hits and one run.
“It was a heck of a ballgame up to that point,” manager Eric Wedge said. “Vargas did a tremendous job. He really threw the ball well against a tough lineup. But that game got away from us quick.”
After Vargas struck out John McDonald with his 105th pitch of the game for the second out in the seventh, catcher Chris Gimenez hardly had time to throw the ball back to the mound when Wedge was out there to make a change.
He brought in right-hander Jamey Wright to face Jose Molina, who’d doubled and singled in his two at-bats against Vargas, and the Mariners’ stretch of strong relief pitching continued.
Wright struck out Molina for the third out, giving him 162⁄3 scoreless innings this year including 12 innings at spring training. Even though Wright threw only five pitches, Wedge replaced him the eight with Ray against the top of the Blue Jays’ batting order.
“We’ve done a good job in the bullpen. The guys have been set up and we’ve had them in roles,” Wedge said. “Jamey came in and did his job.”
By the time Ray got an out, the Jays had taken the lead.
Yunel Escobar singled up the middle and Corey Patterson dropped a bunt up the first base line that Smoak, hoping it would roll foul, watched it come to a stop just inside the line for a hit. That put runners at first and second with nobody out and Bautista, who led the majors with 54 home runs last year, coming to bat.
Bautista had gone 0-for-3 against Vargas, including two strikeouts.
“I just pitched him in and changed it up with him,” Vargas said. “He’s one of those guys you can’t really fall into patterns with and let him get his arms extended on pitches that he likes.”
Ray tried that against Bautista, throwing a slider that just missed for a 2-1 count. He came back with another slider but it barely broke, and Bautista slammed it into the Jays’ bullpen beyond the left-field fence for a three-run homer and a 4-2 Toronto lead.
“I threw a good one to him 1-1 and just missed. I came back and it just hung,” Ray said. “He’s known for his power and he got it.”
Then the game got quickly got away from the Mariners.
Jayson Nix hit a one-out double and Edwin Encarnacion drove him home with a two-out double. Wedge brought rookie Josh Lueke into the game but he walked McDonald, allowed an RBI double to Molina and a single to Escobar before getting the final out. By then, the Jays led 7-2.
“Their leadoff guy kind of capped one up the middle, and we should have picked up the ball on a bunt when we thought it was going to go foul, and it went pretty quick from there,” Wedge said.
The Mariners scored in the bottom of the eighth on Brendan Ryan’s RBI single, but the Blue Jays answered that with two hits and a run in the ninth off rookie Tom Wilhelmsen.
The loss prevented a series sweep, but the Mariners still accomplished their second series victory of the season — sandwiched around a seven-game losing streak. They flew to Kansas City for a four-game road trip ready to forget — Ray especially — the one brutal inning that cost a victory.
“That’s why you play 162 of them,” Ray said. “You come back tomorrow and take care of business.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog and follow his Twitter updates on the team at @kirbyarnold.