BOSTON — The Mariners have lost games by dropping what would have been the final out at first base. They’ve lost games on towering home runs. They’ve lost on seeing-eye singles. They’ve blown leads and games at home. They’ve melted down in the ninth inning on the road. They’ve done it in nine innings and a night earlier in 15.
But none of those punch-to-the-gut losses were as bad as what the Mariners endured Thursday night at Fenway Park.
Seattle got a stellar start from Felix Hernandez and a grand slam from 41-year-old back-up catcher Henry Blanco, and went into the bottom of the ninth inning with five-run lead.
And they lost, 8-7.
Call it a choke, a joke or just typical fare for this season, but the Mariners’ bullpen seemed helpless as the Red Sox rallied in the ninth, culminating with Daniel Nava’s bases loaded hit deep to center to clinch an improbable win.
“It was a well played ball game by us up until that last inning,” acting manager Robby Thompson said. “We just didn’t get the three outs that we needed.”
It was Boston’s major league leading 11th walk-off win this season, and conversely the Mariners’ league-leading eighth walk-off loss.
“It hurt a lot,” Hernandez said. “This series was a tough one. Those guys were fighting.”
So how did it happen? Most of the Mariners still aren’t sure. The ninth inning was supposed to be an afterthought. They were leading 7-2. Even against a team as good as the Red Sox and in hitter-friendly Fenway, it shouldn’t have been difficult.
But Tom Wilhelmsen made it that way.
The Mariners’ closer was brought in for the non-save situation to get a little work. He hadn’t thrown in three days and Thompson wanted him to get an inning to stay sharp.
“It was a good time to get him back out there,” Thompson said. “It didn’t work out.”
Wilhelmsen was anything but sharp.
He walked Nava to start the inning, and then gave up a single to Ryan Lavarnway. With runners on first and second, Brock Holt doubled to left field to score a run and cut the lead to 7-3. Wilhelmsen then walked Jacoby Ellsbury. At that point, Thompson had seen enough.
And for the second time this season, Wilhelmsen’s status as the closer is uncertain.
Despite having six saves in his past 10 appearances, he’s been anything but dominant. In those 10 outings, only twice has he had clean innings. He’s allowed 11 hits and eight runs with nine walks over that span.
Things got worse when Thompson went to pull Wilhelmsen.
After calling timeout, and heading from the dugout to the mound, Thompson thought he signaled for right-hander Yoervis Medina, who was warming in the bullpen along with lefty Oliver Perez. Thompson said he pointed to the bullpen with his left arm and then tapped his right arm with the left hand – his signal he wanted the right-hander.
“Normally, when I go to whoever I want, I tap,” Thompson said simulating the motion.
However, home plate umpire David Rackley saw Thompson pointing with the left-hand as a signal for Perez. Medina, who was jogging in, was sent back to the bullpen and Perez was forced to come in the game.
Crew chief Gary Darling stepped in and squashed Thompson’s protests.
“Gary said you made a motion with your left hand, but I said I wanted to go to my right arm,” Thompson said. “They didn’t see it that way. We wanted to go to Medina there. And then Ollie was the next guy.”
Perez was just as confused in the bullpen.
“(The umpires) said it was the lefty but I saw (Thompson) signal for the righty,” Perez said. “I’ve never had that happen to me before. But I was ready.”
The umpires ruling shouldn’t have mattered that much. Perez is nearly as adept at getting out right-handers as he is left-handed hitters. And the Mariners simply needed outs of any kind with a four-run lead.
Perez couldn’t get the outs.
He gave up a hard ground ball to Shane Victorino that just got past Nick Franklin at second to score two runs. Dustin Pedroia followed with a single to left to score Ellsbury and cut the lead to 7-6.
“I was trying to go away because I know those guys were looking for something to just pull,” Perez said. “We almost had Victorino on the ground ball. That could have been the inning.”
Perez came back to strike out David Ortiz.
Thompson then finally got to use Medina to face the right-handed hitting Johnny Gomes.
It looked as though Medina might get the Mariners out of some trouble. He fired a 2-2 fastball on the outside edge of the plate. Rackley called it a ball. Medina and Blanco were both stunned at the call.
“I think it was a strike,” Medina said. “It was right on the plate. It was a good pitch. The umpire said, no. I don’t know why.”
On the ensuing 3-2 pitch, Gomes lined a single up the middle to score Victorino and tie the game at 7-7.
Medina then walked Stephen Drew to load the bases, setting up Nava to be the hero. Nava jumped on the first pitch he saw from Medina and hit over the head of a drawn-in Michael Saunders to clinch the win and send the Red Sox into the type of celebration the Mariners have watched far too many times this season.
The absurdity of the loss completely overshadowed what happened in the first seven innings.
Hernandez was his usual stellar self. With a crowd of 35,866, Hernandez shut down the Red Sox, limiting them to just one run over seven innings, giving up six hits and striking out eight while walking two.
“He went out there and was Felix, and did his job,” Thompson said.
Hernandez got plenty of run support.
The Mariners got a run in the first inning when Brad Miller tripled to lead off the game and scored on Kyle Seager’s RBI single. They added a run in the third on Justin Smoak’s RBI single to right.
The game turned into a supposed laugher in the fifth inning. Seager tripled and scored on Morales’ single. But the big and unlikely hit came later after the Mariners loaded the bases. Blanco yanked a Ryan Dempster fastball down the left field and line over the Green Monster for his second grand slam of the season and the third this year.
And yet it wasn’t enough.
Hernandez handed over a 7-1 lead to the bullpen in the eighth. Charlie Furbush gave up solo homer to Victorino to start the eighth that cut the lead to 7-2. It stayed that way until the debacle that was the ninth inning.
“Felix did everything he can, we just didn’t get it done,” Perez said of the bullpen. “We just couldn’t get three outs.”