Seattle Mariners

In middle, Mariners are empty

It wasn’t the three Boston home runs that beat them, or the gritty pitching of Josh Beckett, who won his fourth game of the year. The Seattle Mariners had no one to blame Saturday night but themselves.

Again.

Emergency starter Garrett Olson went six innings and was tagged with Seattle’s 5-3 loss, but the team couldn’t have expected much more of him. He had pitched two innings since May 6.

There were two glaring factors in the game, and the Mariners are going to have to figure ways to deal with them if they’re going to beat good teams.

The first is that heart-of-the-order problem. There might be plenty of heart there, but there’s almost no production. No. 3 hitter Ken Griffey Jr. and No. 4 hitter Adrian Beltre went 1-for-7 and, between them, ended three innings and struck out four times.

Manager Don Wakamatsu has tried other hitters in those spots – from Jose Lopez and Mike Sweeney to Russell Branyan.

The results are depressingly similar.

The inning that turned this one, however, was not the fault of the 3-4-5 hitters. It was the inability of Wladimir Balentien and Kenji Johjima to hit a ball out of the infield during the fourth inning.

Boston and Beckett began that inning with a 4-2 lead, but Beltre singled and Branyan doubled him home. Better still for Seattle, Branyan took third base on the throw to the plate.

So it was a one-run game, with no one out and a Mariners runner at third.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona brought his infield in. Balentien grounded to the shortstop, and Branyan had no chance to score. Johjima grounded to second base, freezing out the Mariners again.

Yuniesky Betancourt, who’d homered in the second inning, then drew his third walk in two nights since being reinstated to the lineup. Endy Chavez lined out, and that was it.

Branyan stayed at third, and the Mariners never got closer to tying the game, let alone going ahead.

“In that situation, we have to get the run home, no matter what it takes,” Wakamatsu said. “If we tie, it’s a different game. If it’s a one-run game at the end, it’s a different game, we can play it a little differently.

“That was the inning that hurt us most.”

Olson gave up four runs in two innings, putting the Mariners in a hole they never climbed out of. Home runs by Jason Bay and Jason Varitek put Seattle down, 4-0, before the Mariners’ No. 5 hitter had come to bat.

When the Mariners tried their comeback, it was Betancourt who got it going.

Gettiing to a 3-2 count against Beckett in the second inning, Betancourt cut the Boston lead in half with his second home run of the season – a two-out bolt with Balentien aboard.

“Yuni’s giving us better at-bats, he’s working the counts,” Wakamatsu said.

Olson pitched a strange game, befitting of a man who hadn’t started since last season. Against the Red Sox, he got through six innings on 93 pitches – a little more, perhaps, than the Mariners could have expected.

“The home runs didn’t bother me,” Wakamatsu said. “The walks that preceded two of them, that was what hurt us. If they’re solo shots ...”

Olson allowed only four hits, but three were home runs. And of the four men he walked, two scored.

What he did, however, was fill in admirably for the sitting-this-one-out Erik Bedard, and though he didn’t win, he left having given Seattle the chance to win.

For a man who’d pitched only seven innings since May 5, when he was recalled from Tacoma – and only two innings since May 6 – it was a thoroughly professional effort.

And then, there’s that heart of the order. In 88 at-bats, Griffey is batting .205 with seven RBI. In 148 at-bats, Beltre is batting .216 with 15 RBI. In 69 at-bats, Sweeney is batting .246 with nine RBI.

At issue now might be the patience of the Mariners with those hitters – and how long that patience lasts. Between them, designated hitters Sweeney and Griffey have five home runs and 16 RBI in a combined 157 at-bats.

If either was hitting, Beltre’s numbers might improve. At the moment, he’s trying to drive in runs that aren’t on base, trying to hit home runs every time up.

There will be another 125 games to play, other chances to score runs with an infield in tight, other close games to be won.

Without a productive heart of the lineup in a league where most everyone else is built around those spots in the order, the Mariners’ job is going to be just that much tougher.

larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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