For the better part of two hours Saturday afternoon, the Mariners treated their crowd to the kind of game rarely played at Safeco Field.
The hitters sprayed the ball all over the field, scoring three runs in the third and another in the fifth to take a 4-0 lead over the Baltimore Orioles. Another stellar start by veteran Chris Young — his ERA is down to 3.04, which is insane for a castaway acquired at the 11th hour of spring training — minimized the stress associated with Seattle’s post-All-Star break funk.
By Mariners standards, it was a blowout.
And then it wasn’t.
Reliever Danny Farquhar replaced Young in the eighth and, after picking up two quick outs, hit a batter before walking another. Joe Beimel replaced Farquhar and threw a wild pitch, advancing the runners.
Beimel appeared to escape the jam when he got Chris Davis to hit one-bouncer to third baseman Kyle Seager, but the bounce was tricky and the ball caromed off Seager’s glove: “E-5” in scoring parlance, and “uh-oh” for those skeptics who’ve come to sense the disappointing homestand as the turning point of a season heading south.
By the time still another reliever, Yoervis Medina, retired Manny Machado for the third out, the Orioles had scored three runs were back in a game that would be turned over to the Fernando Rodney Experience in the ninth.
Rodney jogged out of the bullpen in quest of his 200th career save, and it wouldn’t have been fitting for him to make No. 200 a three-up, three-down, no-sweat save. Between the first and second out, Rodney walked pinch hitter David Lough on five pitches.
Lough came into the game hitting .207, but he can run, and with the dangerous Delmon Young representing the Orioles last chance, the heat was on.
And then it wasn’t.
As Rodney prepared to pitch out of the stretch, he saw, over his left shoulder, Lough making a mad dash down the basepath. The closer stepped off the rubber, turned around, and calmly threw a strike to Robinson Cano at second base. Lough slid into the tag, and a cruise-control game that turned into a drag race ended with the Mariners surviving demolition derby.
“Maybe this is the way God wanted it,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He wanted Rodney to get his 200th and me on the edge of my seat.”
Even for those without a seat, the ninth inning was edgy.
“’I’m trying to pick up the batter and all the sudden I see some commotion,” left fielder Dustin Ackley said. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen. You definitely want to try to get to second if you’re the Orioles, but you don’t want to run into an out.
“All I was thinking was, just make a good throw to second and get the runner out, because those guys were starting to come back there at the end.”
Ackley was surprised to see Lough break for second, but McClendon wasn’t. Seattle’s scouting file told him that a stolen-base attempt in that situation was imminent.
“I kind of figured he’d do that,” McClendon said. “I didn’t figure he’d break that early, but I thought he was gonna try to steal a base.”
In any case, Lough’s mistimed break on the stolen-base attempt enabled the Mariners to snap a four-game losing streak.
If you’ve got the suspicion nothing comes easy for this team, it’s because nothing comes easy. The 4-3 victory was the 13th game of the Mariners’ past 18 decided by two or fewer runs. In nine of those games, the difference has been one run.
More broadly, the Mariners lead the American League in games decided by two or fewer runs (57) and a corresponding number — 30 defeats by two runs or fewer — also leads the league.
The good news is the Mariners are blessed with a starting pitching rotation that allows them a reasonable chance to beat anybody, anywhere.
The not-so-good news is 30 defeats in close games has created a subconscious expectation that something will go wrong in the eighth or ninth inning — an expectation reinforced Saturday.
Ah, but Somebody Up There had a different plan for the Mariners, and for Rodney.
By the way, who was the target of the imaginary arrow Rodney fired after Cano’s game-clinching tag?
“Because,” Rodney said with a laugh, “he left early.”