By Larry LaRue The News Tribune
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Seattle Mariners scored a tie-breaking run in the 11th inning en route to what appeared to be a .500 April on Monday — only to have closer Brandon League give up one in the 11th and another in the 12th.
It was a tough game to lose to the Tampa Bay Rays, 3-2, but the night had been a hard one for Seattle before League ever warmed up.
Felix Hernandez pitched another dominant no-decision, his third of the year, and Seattle lost starting catcher Miguel Olivo to a groin strain in the ninth inning.
Olivo, who’d homered and extended his hitting streak to eight games in a row, will be placed on the disabled list today — and the Mariners almost certainly will rely upon catcher Jesus Montero and John Jaso behind the plate in the foreseeable future.
“Montero and Jaso will split time back there, and if that’s the way we go it’s likely we’ll bring Mike Carp up,” manager Eric Wedge said.
That will spell a major change in May.
Rookie Montero has been considered a ‘project’ rather than a regular, and though he started eight of the team’s first 24 games, manager Eric Wedge has been hesitant to put too much too soon on his shoulders.
Jaso, a left-handed hitter obtained in trade with Tampa this off-season, didn’t catch an inning in April, and the Mariners seemed in no hurry to get him behind the plate.
That changed when Olivo fielded a ground ball in front of the plate and slipped on artificial turf.
“I had this last spring, too, and it wasn’t that bad,” Olivo said. “I felt a pop and I knew it was bad. I play hard, that’s the only way I know. Sometimes it happens when you play hard.”
The Mariners could have recalled veteran Guillermo Quiroz from Tacoma, considered the best pure defensive catcher in the organization, but that would have required placing him on the 40-man roster and taking someone else off.
Determining how best to proceed behind the plate might not be the only decision the team faces in May.
Another might be how long to pursue the Chone Figgins-as-leadoff-hitter experiment.
Twenty-two starts into that experiment, Figgins is batting .209 and has scored 10 runs. Brendan Ryan — hitting .136 — has scored 12 times.
Which brings up another May question. How patient will the Mariners be with a starting shortstop batting .136?
The largest question might be how Seattle won 11 games in April when ace Hernandez won only two?
For that matter, how can Hernandez have made six starts, allowed less than six hits per start and crafted an earned run average of 2.23 and still only won twice?
Against Tampa Bay, for instance, Hernandez went eight innings and allowed one run. Two starts ago, he pitched eight innings against Cleveland and — gulp — didn’t win that game either.
And then there was opening day in Tokyo, when Hernandez went eight innings, allowed one run to Oakland and … got a no decision there, too.
Three starts that would seem can’t-miss wins weren’t, and instead of being, say, 5-1 this morning, he’s 2-1.
On Monday, the team had multiple opportunities to push across a run and failed, but the most frustrating probably came in the ninth inning, when Kyle Seager and Olivo singled to put runners on first and third base with one out for Michael Saunders.
Pinch-runner Munenori Kawasaki was at third when Saunders dropped what appeared to be a safety squeeze — and odd call from the bench given how well the left-hander had been hitting lately.
Except the call didn’t come from the bench.
“He bunted on his own, and we’ve already talked about it,” Wedge said. “If we do that, it’s going to come from me and give Kawasaki a better chance to get home.
“It was a mistake. He’ll learn.”
A chastised Saunders said the problem was more the location of the bunt — too close to the mound — not the idea.
“If I get it two feet to the left, we’re not having this conversation,” Saunders said. “I wasn’t not seeing the ball too well tonight, and I took it upon myself, I did it on my own.
“I guess it was the wrong decision.”
League took the loss, being tagged for a run in not one but two extra innings.
“I didn’t do what I’m capable of, which is get ground balls,” League said. “I didn’t do what was expected. I’m a ground ball pitcher, and when I’m not getting ground balls, not many good things happen.”
How often does that happen?
League appeared in 13 April games and allowed runs in two of them.