By Kirby Arnold
SEATTLE – He hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last two starts, and for the season he’s been almost as unhittable as unbeatable.
For all he has done for the Seattle Mariners lately – including a three-hit, 6-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles at Safeco Field on Saturday – Joel Pineiro is headed to the bullpen.
Pineiro escaped a bases-loaded, nobody out jam in the first inning by getting a run-scoring double play, then silenced the Orioles over 7 2/3 innings to raise his record to 5-1 and lower his earned run average to 1.84.
“He competes very well,” manager Lou Piniella said. “He pitches with confidence.”
With that, Piniella said Pineiro’s days as a starter soon will end as the Mariners begin to shape their pitching staff for the playoffs.
“He’ll get one more start next week (against the Rangers), then we’ll put him back in the bullpen and see how he fits as far as the postseason is concerned,” Piniella said.
Even on a team that has won 102 games and sits on a magic number of 4 to clinch the American League West Division title, there are issues.
Pineiro’s status as a starter or reliever was the topic of discussion Saturday.
“As long as I’m in there helping the team out, as along as I’m a part of it, that counts for me,” he said.
As a starter Pineiro has been a near-perfect fit, even through a rough stretch in late August when he couldn’t get through six innings in three straight outings.
A mechanical flaw was the culprit. Pitching coach Bryan Price discovered it, helped Pineiro solve it, and the right-hander has been rock-solid in his two starts since then.
What impressed the Mariners just as much as his pitching was the way Pineiro remained strong mentally.
“So often with young pitchers, it’s a mental thing,” Price said. “All of a sudden you hit a stretch like that and start asking yourself if you have the stuff to get major league hitters.”
Pineiro never lost confidence, although he admits he was bewildered at why he was struggling.
“I knew something was off,” Pineiro said. “It was getting hit around, and I was wondering, ‘Am I doing this, or am I doing that?’”
Almost everything Pineiro threw Saturday was the right stuff, especially after the Orioles loaded the bases on first baseman John Olerud’s error, Brian Roberts’ single and a walk to Chris Richard with nobody out.
Pineiro then got Jeff Conine to hit into a run-scoring double play and coaxed Cal Ripken Jr. into a ground out to end the inning.
“He got the double play ball, then he settled down and pitched an outstanding ballgame,” Piniella said.
The Mariners got that run back in the bottom of the first, then put the Orioles away with five runs in the third.
Ichiro Suzuki started both innings with hits that continued his record-setting season.
Suzuki’s infield single off first baseman Jeff Conine was his 216th of the season, passing Alex Rodriguez’s 1997 team record. In the third, Suzuki cranked a home run – only his seventh of the season – deep into the right-field seats.
That hit, his 217th this season, pulled him into a tie for third place among rookies on baseball’s single-season list with Tony Oliva (1964). The major league record is 233 by Joe Jackson of Cleveland in 1911.
The home run also snapped a steak of 30 consecutive singles and, possibly, left a little reminder in opponents’ minds that he can launch the ball with power.
“Whatever,” said Suzuki, who leads the league with a .352 batting average. “Whatever you want to think.”
In the field, Suzuki burned the Orioles for the second time in less than a week when they tried to score on a single to right field. He threw out Tony Batista to end the top of the fifth inning after Jerry Hairston had singled.
“He can play,” Piniella said of Suzuki. “He’s got tremendous skills up there with the bat and in the outfield, and he shows them off very often.”
Suzuki wasn’t the only one to set a milestone Saturday.
The 45,894 at Safeco gave the Mariners a home total of 3,008,363 in 70 home dates, the fastest they’ve reached the 3 million mark. With 11 home games remaining, all of them either sellouts or nearing it, the M’s should draw about 3.5 million and shatter the 1997 record of 3,192,237.