BY John Hickey 11:15PM 06/03/2011

Hickey: Vargas’ return to form soothes Mariners

After two terrible outings, Seattle lefty is back in form and the Mariners are in second place.

Mariners starter Jason Vargas snapped back to form with his first career shutout Friday against Tampa Bay. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Both Seattle and Tampa Bay finished Friday’s game with four hits.

But that was all the equality there was between the two. The Mariners unloaded three home runs, one each by Justin Smoak, Adam Kennedy and Miguel Olivo, and then left it to starter Jason Vargas.

The left-hander had been hammered for 11 runs in early exits in each of his two previous starts, but there was none of that nonsense this time. Vargas allowed just three men to reach base in the first eight innings, and that earned him a chance to pitch the ninth.

Vargas allowed two one-out hits in the ninth, but the Rays didn’t come close to scoring as Seattle moved to its 30th win of the season with a 7-0 pounding of Tampa Bay.

That leaves the Mariners in second place in the American League West, 1½ games behind Texas, and about three weeks ahead of last year’s wins pace. Seattle didn’t win its 30th game a year ago until June 23, and only won 61 games all year.

Clearly 2011 is a different season.

“We’re having a lot of fun here winning,” Kennedy said. “It’s fun to play behind someone like Jason when he’s throwing the way he was tonight.”

The game isn’t fun for everybody, of course. Six of the Seattle starters went hitless Friday, including the top two men in the order, Ichiro Suzuki and Brendan Ryan. For Ryan, who has been red-hot of late, his 0-for-3 was something of an anomaly.

But for Ichiro, who went 0-for-4, his inability to pile up hits is becoming something of the norm.

Ichiro opened this week with four hits in his first nine at-bats through the third inning Wednesday. Those hits snapped a personal 0-for-11 skid. Since then, however, he’s hitless in his last 11 at-bats.

His overall batting average is down to .266, the lowest he’s ever been this deep into a big league season. And his streak of 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons is in jeopardy – his current pace will only get him to 179.

“It’s tough when we’re not all hitting at the same time,” Kennedy said of Ichiro and others. “But I’m confident were all getting better. The main thing is, we’re winning.”

That is the main thing. And as long as the Mariners continue to get solid pitching, they’ve proven that a little bit of hitting can go a long way.

Vargas’ previous two starts against the Twins and the Yankees saw him hit around. But the two starts before that, against the Orioles and the Angels saw the other side of his game. He threw a combined 16 scoreless innings in those two starts, and he was back to that form Friday against the Rays.

He gave up a leadoff single to Felipe Lopez in the third and a one-out single to Ben Zobrist in the fourth. After that, only a two-out walk to Johnny Damon in the sixth impaired Vargas at all. And when he threw a 1-2-3 seventh and a 1-2-3 eighth, that was enough for manager Eric Wedge to allow Vargas to go for his first career shutout.

“It depended on how he threw in the eighth,” Wedge said. “We weren’t going to put him in position where he’d wind up throwing 125 pitches. But he pitched a good eighth. He gave himself the opportunity to pitch the ninth.”

Vargas had never thrown a shutout before, not even in the minor leagues. He did throw nine scoreless innings May 12, but he didn’t get a decision in that one because the Mariners didn’t score while he was in the game and, in fact, lost the game in 12 innings.

Vargas wanted to get the ball for the ninth inning, but he was well aware the call wasn’t his.

“I’m always ready to go,” the left-hander said, “unless he (Wedge) tells me no.”

Seattle has won five consecutive series already, and they’ve won the first two of this four-game set, meaning they can do no worse than split with Tampa Bay. But the Mariners have bigger aspirations than just a split.

“We’re having fun winning,” Kennedy said. “We want to keep it up.”

NOTES: Rookie outfielder Greg Halman was a surprised as anyone at his promotion to the big leagues considering that he’d been back with Triple-A Tacoma for just five games after having fractured a bone in his left hand. “I was surprised, but I’m ready to go,” said Halman, who was up with the Mariners for a bit last year. … Left fielder Carlos Peguero hit two homers Thursday and Smoak and DH Jack Cust also went deep. It was just the fifth time in Seattle club history that the Mariners had four home runs come off the bats of left-handed hitters, and the first time since 2006. … Kennedy followed Thursday’s three-hit game with a solo homer and a bases-loaded walk in four plate trips. That pushed his batting average to .299, the best on the Seattle roster. … Kennedy and catcher Miguel Olivo became the second Mariners to homer back-to-back this season. … Smoak’s bases-loaded walk in the third inning was Seattle’s 12th of the season. Seattle has only a .243 average with the bases loaded, but their production has included 33 RBIs thanks principally to the walks, the most with the bases loaded for any big league team.

Twitter:@JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • Bayviewherb

    I’m wondering if Ichiro has had an eye exam recently. He doesn’t seem to be seeing the ball like he used to. 

  • Bayviewherb

    I’m wondering if Ichiro has had an eye exam recently. He doesn’t seem to be seeing the ball like he used to.