When Chad Cordero jumped ahead of free-swinging shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt in the 10th inning Monday, 0-2 with two outs, there may not have been anyone in Safeco Field who thought Betancourt might beat the Seattle Mariners.
Not the Yuniesky Betancourt who Mariners fans remember chasing balls in his eyes, at his shoes, in the other batter’s box.
When Cordero left a pitch waist high and inside, Betancourt stung it for an RBI single – the 13th hit for Kansas City in what became a 6-4, 10-inning victory over the Mariners.
A team struggling to find itself, the Mariners have now played nine extra-inning games in 2010.
And lost eight of them.
“Felix (Hernandez) pitched well enough to win that game, gave us his fifth quality start in a row,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “Our bullpen let us down. We had a two-run lead with six outs to go.”
Wasted was a gritty seven-inning start from Hernandez, who handed a two-run lead to his bullpen with two innings to play. Wasted, too, was a two-run home run by Russell Branyan in his first game back in Safeco Field.
It was a stark reminder that a gifted pitcher and a big bat aren’t enough to win games in the American League. Not without more offense, not without a stingy bullpen.
“We really let Felix down tonight,” Wakamatsu said.
For seven innings, few of them easy, Hernandez was his usual tough self, giving up hits – even a couple of walks – but letting the Royals score against him just two times.
When Branyan hit his 13th home run for a 4-2 lead in the fifth inning, Hernandez made that lead stand up. All it took was all he had.
Felix pitched out of one jam in the sixth inning, after the Royals scored once and put a man at second base with only one out. In the seventh, Mike Aviles singled leading off, took second on a wild pitch. Hernandez held him there, too.
When he walked off the mound, however, he’d thrown 112 pitches and worked only one 1-2-3 inning. For Wakamatsu, that was enough.
The plan was one inning from set-up man Brandon League, an inning from closer David Aardsma and here, Felix, is your seventh win.
It was a fine plan. It didn’t work.
League faced five Royals in the eighth inning and retired one of them. The other four had hits, two of them producing the runs that tied the game.
“He fell behind everyone he faced,” Wakamatsu said.
Here, Felix, is your sixth no-decision.
The Mariners, of course, know better. They cannot waste potential wins with either Cliff Lee or Hernandez on the mound, especially when either of them pitches well. When one of your aces allows two runs over seven innings, the theory is, they have to win.
Between them, however, Lee and Hernandez have 14 wins this season in 31 combined starts – miserable production from two of the American League’s better starters.
It’s a major factor in the Mariners’ fourth-place standing. They don’t win even half the games their best two pitchers start.
After Garrett Olson, then Brian Sweeney each got an out to end the eighth inning for the Royals, the Mariners had a point-blank opportunity to win it in front of 22,617 fans in their half of the inning.
Branyan walked and Jose Lopez, a dead pull hitter, went the other way and doubled just inside the right field fou l line, pushing Branyan to third with no one out.
Royals reliever Robinson Tejada then made one of those purpose pitches – a 94 mph fastball at the head of Franklin Gutierrez. It missed, but Gutierrez struck out and his heart didn’t seem to be in the swing.
Pinch hitter Milton Bradley struck out, too. And Jack Wilson popped weakly to shortstop, leaving the bases loaded.
The loss was costly to a team trying to convince itself and its front office that it can still compete, coming on a night when all three other teams in the AL West lost. After picking up a game on Texas on Sunday with a win, the Mariners could have done so again Monday.
How rare would that have been?
The last time Seattle gained ground on the division leader on back-to-back days was April 27-28 – when Oakland led the West.
The Athletics, Angels and Rangers have since taken turns at the top, and the Mariners have failed to gain two games in two days against any of them.
This time around, a shortstop they dealt away in 2009 came back to beat them with an unlikely two-strike single after the Mariners’ best set-up man couldn’t hold a two-run lead for longer than one out.