OAKLAND – After too many horror stories this season concluded with the Seattle Mariners as primary victims, Saturday’s game for once gave them a happy ending.
The working title could be, “The Old Man and the King.”
A day after he was signed by the Mariners, catcher Henry Blanco, 41 years and 290 days old, became the unlikeliest of heroes against the Oakland A’s.
With the Mariners’ bats flailing and failing against Athletics starter A.J. Griffin and locked in a 0-0 tie in sixth inning, Blanco provided an unexpected result, crushing a grand slam to left field to provide all the offense in Seattle’s 4-0 win.
Blanco became the oldest Mariners player to hit a grand slam, supplanting teammate Raul Ibañez, who hit a grand slam at 40 years, 347 days against the Yankees on May 15.
“Raul had the record before
me? Well, I got it now,” Blanco said grinning.
Couple Blanco’s blast with yet another stellar outing from Felix Hernandez – seven shutout innings – and the Mariners not only picked up a victory but clinched a series win over the Athletics.
It’s the first series loss for Oakland since dropping two of three to the Texas Rangers in May.
“We came in here and they were the hottest team in baseball and really hot at home,” manager Eric Wedge said.
Indeed, Oakland was 21-5 over its previous 26 games prior to Friday night’s loss to Seattle had won 11 straight at O.co Coliseum.
“They’re a good baseball club,” Wedge said. “We’re still trying to find ourselves. We’ll continue to get better too. We’re nowhere near what we should be health-wise. We’re nowhere near what we should be performance-wise offensively. There’s only upside to be had there.”
Blanco’s role in that upside is mostly as a mentor to Mike Zunino.
He is known for defense, leadership and clubhouse presence. Grand slams are a rarity. In his 16-year career, mostly as a backup, he’d hit just 69 career homers with one grand slam — on May 12, 2000, with the Brewers against the Pirates.
“It was a long time ago,” Blanco said. “It was off of Jason Schmidt. I got a fastball to hit, and I hit it out. The same thing happened today.”
The gap of 13 years and 34 days between grand slams was the fifth-longest stretch for any player since 1900, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“Hell, he’s only a couple years younger than I am,” said the 45-year-old Wedge. “And he’s in a hell of a lot better shape. He couldn’t get off to a better start – catch a shutout and hit a grand slam. Good for him.”
When Blanco found out he was making his debut with the Mariners on Saturday, a grand slam was the last thing on his mind.
“You always (hope) to make a good impression the first time out,” Blanco said. “I didn’t know I would I make it that way, but it was good that it happened.”
Blanco also made an unexpectedly favorable impression catching fellow Venezuelan Felix Hernandez.
“I thought he did a tremendous job behind the plate,” Wedge said. “You could see what he does back there and how he handles things and the way he makes it look so easy.”
Blanco and Hernandez didn’t need any major meetings before the outing. Blanco had caught him in a bullpen session in the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and they’ve known each other for years.
“He was trying to talk to me before the game, and I was like, ‘Henry don’t talk to me, just call pitches, and I will throw it to you,’” Hernandez said.
And that’s what they did. Hernandez carved up the A’s in his usual fashion. He worked out of minor jams along the way thanks to eight strikeouts and some nice defensive plays.
The biggest came in the fifth inning. Hernandez gave up a leadoff double to Jed Lowrie, who advanced to third on a flyout by Seth Smith. With one out, Chris Young lifted a fly ball to right field. Lowrie tried to tag, but Endy Chavez made a textbook play, anticipating that Lowrie would try to score and firing a perfect strike to Blanco to cut him down at the plate.
“I got myself ready before I caught the ball,” he said. “I started moving in on it. So when I catch it, my body is already in position to throw. I knew it had a chance.”
Hernandez was in position to see Blanco field the one-hop throw and make a tough diving tag on Lowrie.
“I called him out,” Hernandez said. “I was excited. Endy made a great throw and that was the difference in the game.”
With his pitch count at 108, Hernandez was done after seven innings. Charlie Furbush worked a 1-2-3 eighth, but gave up a leadoff single in the ninth. Wedge chose to go reliever Yoervis Medina instead of Carter Capps or Oliver Perez.
Medina walked pinch-hitter Derek Norris to put runners on first and second. With the tying run in the on-deck circle, Wedge chose to stay with Medina.
“It was just the third run at the plate,” Wedge said. “If that’s the fourth run at plate then I have to bring Oliver in.”
The hard-throwing rookie responded, getting the always dangerous Yoenis Cespedes to fly out to center, striking out Brandon Moss looking and getting a nice sliding stop from Kyle Seager for a ground ball out on Josh Donaldson to end the game.
“The big out was Moss,” Wedge said. “I stuck with Medina and he did a nice job.”Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish