The most important game of the season to date for the Seattle Mariners?
Sure, it’s still mid-July, but that’s how manager Lloyd McClendon viewed Saturday’s 4-3 victory over the New York Yankees.
“This, in my mind, was a must victory for us,” he insisted. “Coming out of the break, you didn’t want to go 0-2. We hadn’t beaten this team all year. They’ve handled us pretty good. So this was important.”
Victory didn’t come easily despite a pair of two-run homers by Robinson Cano and another strong start by right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma.
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No, the Mariners were holding on at the end when some defensive misplays put de facto closer Carson Smith in a jam.
The Yankees scored once in the ninth inning and had the tying run at second base before Smith closed it out by retiring Didi Gregorius on a routine grounder to Cano at second.
That Cano had a hand in that final out was fitting after he answered loud boos from the sellout crowd by producing the 14th multihomer game of his career.
The previous 13 came while playing for the Yankees before he bolted for the Pacific Northwest after the 2013 season by signing a 10-year deal for $240 million. The Bronx locals, it seems, remain upset by his decision.
“The more they boo me,” Cano said, “I use that as a motivation. You got to hear it, but I don’t really pay attention. And I’m not the first or going to be the last one (they boo).”
Cano’s homers came against New York starter Michael Pineda, an ex-Mariner who shackled his former club on June 1 in a 7-2 Yankees’ victory at Safeco Field.
Pineda (9-6) carried a shutout into the seventh inning in that start, first career appearance against the Mariners. This time, Cano staked Seattle to a 2-0 lead in the first inning.
That loomed large because Iwakuma (2-1) appeared in top form again after pitching eight shutout innings in his previous start. He retired 11 of the first 12 Yankees before trouble struck with two outs in the fourth.
Mark Teixeira lined a single to right before Brian McCann crushed an 0-1 fastball for a two-run homer. The 427-foot drive pulled the Yankees even at 2-2.
“I felt good overall,” said Iwakuma, who has made three starts since returning from an 11-week stay on the disabled list because of a strained muscle in his back.
“It’s just that one pitch to Brian McCann, a fastball up and away. It wasn’t a good pitch. And it was coming after two outs. That, I kind of regret. Other than that, I thought I did well overall.”
The Mariners regained the lead in the sixth inning on Cano’s second homer, an absolute bomb that followed a seeing-eye single by Kyle Seager through the right side of the infield.
Cano admitted it was special.
“Not only because I hit two homers,” he said, “but when you can come out and help a team win a game — especially after the game (Friday) night. Tough game. Close game. They ended up winning.
“You come back today and battle the whole game and be able to win.”
It was a battle.
Seattle’s Joe Beimel, who yielded the winning homer Friday to Alex Rodriguez, bounced back by bailing out Iwakuma from a two-on, two-out jam in the sixth inning.
Mark Lowe pitched around Gregorius’ two-out double in the seventh, and lefty Vidal Nuno got the first two outs in the eighth against left-handers Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner.
Fernando Rodney ended the inning by retiring Rodriguez on a grounder to second. That got the game to Smith with a two-run lead, but he started the ninth by surrendering a double to Teixeira.
Center fielder Austin Jackson broke late on the ball, which bounced off the wall. Afterward, Jackson admitted: “He hit it a lot better than I thought he hit it.”
Smith then struck out McCann and Chase Headley, but Headley reached first base because catcher Mike Zunino couldn’t handle what was a nasty slider. Zunino said he never got a glove on the ball.
Teixeria took third on what was scored a wild pitch.
Chris Young replaced Headley as a pinch runner at first. The Yankees had the tying runs on base with one out, and Smith, in his first career appearance at Yankee Stadium, was in a jam.
“Our center fielder didn’t get a jump on the ball,” McClendon said, “and our catcher had a passed ball. Listen, (Smith) hung tough, and he got the job done.”
Teixeira scored when Garrett Jones’ sent a soft chopper to short, which produced the second out but also moved Young, the tying run, to second. But Smith finished it on Gregorius’ grounder to second.
So, again, was this a must game? On July 18? With 71 games remaining in the season?
“For us,” Cano said, “every game is a must game.”