ANAHEIM, CALIF. – They considered this a statement series, a test of where they are as a team, what they might still have in them.
So the Seattle Mariners started Jason Vargas and a struggling offense against Los Angeles on Friday – and won a game, 5-2, that left them just two games behind the second-place Angels. That despite an ugly May, during which they’ve now won 10 times, and during which their offense seemed to have fled the country.
What’s kept the team close to .500 is what allowed Seattle to earn its 23rd win – pitching. And on Friday, that pitching had a name: Jason Vargas.
“Vargas set the tone for the game,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “We keep looking for chinks in his armor; he keeps pitching well against good lineups. He’s for real.”
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The Mariners have proved that if a starting pitcher can get them into the seventh inning with a lead, they have the arms in the bullpen to make it hold up. There has been one large problem: getting a lead, period.
This time, Wakamatsu wasn’t going to wait for home runs, and he wasn’t even going to wait for a wave of hits. If the Mariners got a man on base, he was going to put him in position to score.
With two hot hitters – Ichiro Suzuki and Russell Branyan – in his lineup, Wakamatsu helped get the game to each of them, and it worked.
After Endy Chavez singled one out into the third inning, the Mariners played hit-and-run, and Franklin Gutierrez singled Chavez to third base. That brought up Ichiro, who extended his hitting streak to 22 games by singling Chavez home on an 0-2 pitch from John Lackey.
“My job there was to get the first run of the night home,” Ichiro said. “With two strikes, I think about a lot of things.”
“That is for you to imagine,” he said.
Seattle scored two more runs that inning, on an excuse-me infield single by Adrian Beltre and a sacrifice fly by Ken Griffey Jr. As it turned out, those three runs would be enough, but the Mariners didn’t know that – and they played for more.
Branyan opened the sixth inning with a double, was bunted to third base by Jose Lopez and scored on a sacrifice fly.
“I have to get that runner to third base, so I bunted on my own,” Lopez said. “It worked out. If I don’t get the RBI, I try to help set the run up.”
Ichiro doubled to open the seventh, and the Mariners tried it again, bunting Ichiro to third base.
The problem? Beltre, who opened the game hitting .212, struck out. And cleanup hitter Griffey, who opened the game batting .218, flied out.
Go ahead: Find a 3-4 punch in anyone’s lineup with those kind of batting averages.
“We executed pretty well, except for leaving that guy at third,” Wakamatsu said.
Still, when Lopez homered in the eighth inning, it gave Seattle a three-run lead with six outs to go.
Mark Lowe got three in a row in the eighth. David Aardsma got the first two men he faced in the ninth, then gave up a single and a walk.
“In this ballpark, with that crowd right on you, it’s a challenge getting that last out,” Wakamatsu said.
Aardsma did, picking up his seventh save.
What he saved was the first two-game winning streak of the month for Seattle and the second win of the year for Vargas.
When the Mariners decided to try Vargas in their starting rotation – as much because of injuries as anything – they certainly didn’t schedule a soft landing.
In four starts, he’s faced Texas, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
In each of his first three starts, he went at least five innings and allowed only one earned run.
Against the Angels, he continued to be the surprise of the Seattle staff, lasting 6 innings and giving up two runs.
“I threw a lot of change-ups in my last start, so the plan was to throw fewer of them tonight,” Vargas said. “I threw fastballs until it seemed they were on them, then tried another pitch.”
Without an overpowering pitch, Vargas has to pitch as much with his head as his arm, and if you want an example, take the way he handled Vladimir Guerrero in the seventh inning.
Vargas started him with an 85 mph fastball, fooled him badly with a 77 mph change-up – then handcuffed him with an 84 mph fastball on the hands that Guerrero popped up.
Don’t try that at home.
What the 26-year-old 6-footer lacks in stature and velocity, he makes up for with a confidence that’s quiet in the clubhouse but loud and clear on the mound.
Out there, he’s unflappable and, so far for the Mariners, effective.
What Vargas did was give the Mariners the chance to take this series – Felix Hernandez starts tonight – and make their statement. The Mariners could have asked for no more.