Maybe if the fences were just a few feet closer in, or if Josh Hamilton wasn’t quite so good, the Seattle Mariners might have extended their winning streak to five games.
But on a crisp May night with temperatures in the 50s, when the ball simply doesn’t travel at Safeco Field, a pair of hard-hit fly balls simply didn’t have enough distance to carry over the fence – or at least out of the reach of Hamilton, the Texas Rangers’ All-Star center fielder.
So instead of possibly five or six runs, the Mariners managed one in a 3-1 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday night.
“A couple of balls that I thought were going to get out of the ballpark and that would have made a big difference,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
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But fly balls die in left-center and center fields, particularly in the cold spring months. It’s something that Wedge quickly learned.
“I felt like they both had a chance,” Wedge said. “But they were hit to the biggest part of the ballpark and just didn’t get out of here.”
While the debate about moving in the fences at spacious Safeco has gone from mutters to mad rants in recent years, the Mariners (20-25) can only play to the current specifications. And against the Rangers, those specifications cost them.
Seattle was staring at a monster first inning against Texas starter Matt Harrison. The big left-hander had a reputation for struggling in the first inning and had the 6.40 first-inning ERA to prove it.
Alex Liddi drew a one-out walk and later scored on Justin Smoak’s two-out RBI single through the left side. Harrison appeared to be in trouble when he walked Kyle Seager to load the bases for Casper Wells.
Wells jumped all over a first-pitch fastball from Harrison and drove it to the gap in left-center. Hamilton, who normally plays fairly shallow, ran down Wells’ potential extra-base hit and caught it just inches from the wall about 400 feet from home plate to end the inning.
“I thought that was going to go out,” said Liddi, who would later feel Wells’ pain.
So instead of putting up at least three runs and forcing Harrison to throw more than the 36 pitches he’d already thrown, he escaped with just the one run.
And one run doesn’t cut it against the Rangers, who have not been shut out this season.
Texas kept that streak alive in the third inning. Mariners starter Hector Noesi gave up a leadoff walk to Nelson Cruz and a one-out walk to Mitch Moreland. Noesi looked like he might get out of trouble when he got Ian Kinsler to pop up and got ahead of Elvis Andrus, 1-2. However, he hung a curveball to Andrus, who hit it into the gap for a two-run triple.
“It was a mistake,” Noesi said.
When asked where he was trying to throw the curveball, Noesi replied, “The ground.”
Hamilton then dropped in a ground-rule double to left to score Andrus to push the lead to 3-1.
The Mariners looked like they had shaved a run off the deficit in the bottom of the inning. Liddi crushed a Harrison fastball to dead center.
But again, Hamilton got to the ball before it could get over the wall, making a leaping grab at the fence to rob Liddi of extra bases and maybe even a home run.
“I hit it pretty good, and I thought it was going to go out,” Liddi said. “But he made a good play and caught it.”
Liddi hasn’t played in a lot of games at Safeco in his young career but he has been here long enough to know that few homers are a sure thing. Neither his nor Wells’ hits were the first to be swallowed up by Safeco’s space and marine air, and they won’t be the last.
“That’s how it goes,” he said. “This is our field and it’s like that. We have to get used to it and make an adjustment.”
To his credit, Noesi regrouped after the third inning and never allowed another run, retiring 16 of the next 17 batters he faced. He pitched eight innings, giving up three hits and striking out seven with the two costly walks.
“He made one bad pitch, other than that he was outstanding,” Wedge said. “He didn’t let that (one inning) get to him, which says a lot about that young man. He gave us every opportunity to win the ball game.”
But after the tough first inning, Harrison was almost as good. He pitched seven innings, allowing the one run on seven hits with six strikeouts and two walks.
The Mariners mustered only a couple more scoring opportunities. They got runners on first and third with two outs in the fifth. Third base coach Jeff Datz held hustling Brendan Ryan at third when Adrian Beltre booted a ball hit by Liddi. The ball scooted from Beltre into the outfield, and Ryan looked as if he might have been able to make it. Wedge said the angle was tough to see for Datz but his third base coach shouldered the blame.
“Brendan did his job, but I stopped him,” Datz said. “I screwed it up. I feel lousy.”
Ryan was left on third when Ichiro Suzuki grounded softly into a force play to end the inning.
Against a tiring Harrison in the eighth, Liddi and Ichiro started off the inning with singles. Rangers manager Ron Washington called on hard-throwing set-up man Mike Adams, who ended the threat quickly. Adams got Jesus Montero to fly out to right and then struck out Smoak and Seager to end the inning and the Mariners’ victory hopes.
Joe Nathan pitched a scoreless ninth inning to pick up his 10th save of the season.