There was a time this year, Franklin Gutierrez concedes, when he didn’t know if he’d be able to play baseball again, let alone resume his place as an outfielder in the Mariners’ lineup.
Seattle signed him to a minor-league contract in the offseason, a move that felt something like a courtesy to a player who once hauled in brilliant catches and wielded a productive bat, but was robbed of consistent good health by an arthritic condition that threatened to ruin his career.
He hadn’t played in the United States since 2013, and when he reported to spring training, Gutierrez said, “I wasn’t expecting anything. I just wanted to know if I was able to play again. As soon as spring training went and the season (came), I knew that I was feeling better and better and better, so here we are again in the big leagues, and I’m doing the job.”
Good work if you can get it.
Gutierrez’s improbable comeback continued in gratifying fashion Sunday afternoon at Safeco Field, where the 32-year-old ended a 10-inning game against the Toronto Blue Jays with a piercing solo home run over the fence in left-center field, lifting the Mariners to a 6-5 victory before a crowd of 35,159.
It was Gutierrez’s third home run since being selected from Triple-A Tacoma on June 24, and it came five days after his pinch-hit grand slam in Seattle’s 11-9 win over Detroit.
It saved the Mariners from further taxing their thin bullpen. Three pitchers (Carson Smith, Vidal Nuno and Tom Wilhelmsen) were off-limits after heavy duty in prior days, and though Sunday starter Taijuan Walker gamely lasted six innings despite allowing four runs in the first two, the Mariners still had to deploy in relief David Rollins, Mark Lowe and Joe Beimel (whom manager Lloyd McClendon would have preferred to rest).
By the end, embattled right-hander Fernando Rodney was the only remaining available reliever, and McClendon didn’t want to use him, either.
So that was the situation when Gutierrez smacked Aaron Loup’s 0-2 fastball over the fence with one out in the 10th.
“I didn’t even know that we had any more pitchers in the bullpen,” Gutierrez said.
McClendon commended Walker for shaking off a rocky start in which he allowed a long home run to Josh Donaldson in the first inning, and watched Toronto score three more runs behind three hits and an error in the second.
“I commented after the game that I thought he grew up a little bit more under very, very adverse conditions, with not his best stuff,” McClendon said. “(He) gave us six innings and I think he knew how important it was, as well, to save the bullpen as much as he could.”
Said Walker: “I knew I needed to give the team some innings, and I tried to go out there and grind it out and battle.”
It helped that with Toronto runners on first and third and nobody out in the fourth inning — the Mariners trailed 4-3 — second baseman Ryan Goins hit into a bizarre, 3-6-2-2 triple play that was the result of some awful Blue Jays’ base running.
After first baseman Mark Trumbo fielded Goins’ grounder and touched first base, he threw to shortstop Brad Miller, who eventually threw to catcher Mike Zunino, who forced Ezequiel Carerra back to third base … which was already occupied by Kevin Pillar.
By rule, Pillar was out once Zunino tagged him. And for some reason, Carrera fell off the base, too, so Zunino tagged him for the third out.
“It was a big momentum change,” Zunino said. “It really helped Taijuan’s pitch count and allowed him to go a couple more innings.”
The Blue Jays took a 5-3 lead on Carrera’s solo homer off Rollins in the seventh, but the Mariners tied the score when Nelson Cruz launched his 25th homer of the season, a two-run shot, into the upper deck in left field in the bottom half of the inning.
Lowe and Beimel combined to keep Toronto off the board until Gutierrez’s crowd-pleasing blast, which brought his teammates out of the dugout.
They surrounded him at the plate, and mobbed him once he crossed.
Then, they receded.
That’s when Gutierrez heard: “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him!”
It was a moment to savor for Gutierrez, who surprised many by even making it back here.
“I just kept going,” he said, “and this is the reward for me.”
Notebook: The Mariners pull off a wacky triple play, the first of its kind in 60 years. B4