Just when it appeared neither team would ever score again, Jose Lopez singled with the bases loaded in the 12th inning Friday, propelling the Seattle Mariners to a 2-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
What began as a chance to see history – ex-Mariner Randy Johnson bidding for his 299th career win – ended more than four hours later in a game that was nothing if not a tribute to pitching.
“I can’t say enough about our pitching,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “It’s awfully tough when you’re not scoring, the burden you put on your pitching staff. We figured as long as we were still here in the 12th inning, we might as well win it.”
The Giants scored four pitches into the game, when leadoff hitter Aaron Rowand homered off starter Jose Vargas. Twelve innings later, that was still the only run San Francisco had.
Vargas, Mark Lowe, David Aardsma and Sean White held the Giants scoreless for 12 innings – and waited to see if the Mariners would ever score.
They got one run to tie in the sixth inning, then like clockwork scored again six innings later when Lopez singled home Adrian Beltre for Seattle’s seventh win in May.
Trailing 1-0 in the sixth inning, the Mariners rallied to tie – in large part because Wakamatsu threw caution aside. Watch a team go 23 innings without a run, what good is managing cautiously?
Wladimir Balentien had singled and with one out, Johnson walked Kenji Johjima to put men on first and second base. When the count to Jose Lope reached 3-2, Wakamatsu flashed his signs: Send the runners.
It changed the game.
With Balentien in motion, third baseman Pablo Sandoval took a step toward the bag to cover – and Lopez grounded the ball just to Sandoval’s left and into the outfield.
Balentien scored to tie the game.
Johnson didn’t survive the inning, but Vargas did. A plucky 26-year-old lefty, he was clearly Exhibit B in this matchup of starting pitchers. All he did was out-pitch a future Hall of Famer.
After that first-inning home run, Vargas retired 18 of the next 19 Giants he faced – and 21 of the last 23. He struck out seven, matching his career high, and left after seven innings having allowed two hits. In 21 innings this year, Vargas has allowed three earned runs.
Mark Lowe relieved Vargas and pitched two scoreless innings, but the Mariners couldn’t score for him. David Aardsma worked the 10th inning, extending his scoreless run to 10 1/3 consecutive innings.
That works, too.
But the Mariners couldn’t score for him, either.
Whether facing a legend like Johnson or a journeyman reliever, the Mariners don’t have a long list of pitchers they can score against right now. Wakamatsu has used nearly everyone in uniform at a different spot in the lineup, but this much is inescapable.
The American League average for No. 3 and No. 4 hitters is a combined .276.
On the Mariners, those spots in the batting order have a combined .206 average.
That doesn’t work.
It didn’t take more than a glance at the radar gun readings to know that Johnson wasn’t the ‘Big Unit’ of his glory days. He topped out at 92 mph, was mostly in the 80s, but Mr. Snappy, that lethal slider, was still a nasty piece of work.
With it, he shut the Mariners out through five innings, and did so with relative ease.
The first time the Mariners had a point-blank chance to hurt Johnson, it wasn’t even their fault.
One out into the fifth inning, Giants second baseman booed a ground ball by Franklin Gutierrez, who reached base safely on the error. That brought up Ichiro Suzuki, whose career average against Johnson was over .400.
Ichiro added to that with a single, although it was the kind of single only he seems capable of getting. Nubbed in front of the plate, the ball died midway to the mound, and Ichiro beat it out.
Not only did that put runners at first and second base with no one out, it extended Ichiro’s hitting streak to 16 consecutive games.
Johnson got Adrian Beltre on a fielders choice and then, with runners at first and third base, struck out Mike Sweeney.
It was a marvelous inning for Johnson. And it may have been his last great inning against Seattle. In the sixth, that Mariners rally got rolling and Johnson couldn’t stop it, thus losing the chance to win No. 299.
As he left the mound in that sixth inning, however, Johnson doffed his cap, waved to the 38,520 fans at Safeco Field – and they roared their approval.
It wasn’t quite like that first at-bat of the season by Ken Griffey Jr. here, but it may have been the nicest moment any visiting player will get in the foreseeable future. As for Junior, he had a moment of his own Friday.
Two outs into the ninth inning, the Giants intentionally walked Russell Branyan to load the bases for Kenji Johjima – except Griffey walked to the on-deck circle midway through that walk, and the crowd stood and cheered his appearance.
When Griffey went to the plate for his first pinch-hitting assignment of the season, no one sat down. And when he hit a 2-1 pitch deep to right-center field, that crowd roared.
The ball was caught on the warning track, and the Mariners rolled on to their fifth extra innings game of the season.