Of the 3,101 games the Mariners have lost since they entered the American League in 1977, Thursday’s goes down as among the most galling and improbable. Leading 7-2 in the ninth inning, seemingly cruising behind another Felix Hernandez gem and a Henry Blanco grand slam, the Mariners, specifically their bullpen, utterly caved in what became an 8-7 walk-off Red Sox win.
Daniel Cava, the 10th Boston hitter in the ninth, ended it when he poked a bases-loaded shot over the head of Michael Saunders’ head in center, igniting an uproarious celebration by the American League East leaders, who seemed to have had all the gas sucked out of them by Hernandez and Blanco but wound up with a broom job in what is likely to go down as Seattle’s signature loss of the season.
Hernandez, with seven superlative innings, backed by Blanco’s salami in the fifth, had the Mariners in control entering the eighth. A gag job for the Mariner ages began innocently enough when Charlie Furbush came on in relief of Hernandez and gave up a solo home run to Shane Victorino, but that was all the damage in the inning.
In the ninth, the first of three architects of Seattle’s demise, Tom Wilhelmsen, replaced Furbush. One of the most untrustworthy of closers, Wilhelmsen couldn’t find home plate, allowing four runs without recording an out. Oliver Perez came on and yielded two more runs while registering one out. Yoervis Medina replaced Perez and allowed two hits and a walk without getting an out, Nava’s long single doing him in and dooming the Mariners.
Making the grievous more mortifying, interim manager Robby Thompson apparently mis-signaled his choice of relievers. He wanted to replace Wilhelmsen with righthander Medina, but first sent a straight-arm wave with his left hand. Then he touched his right arm, the standard signal. But the ump took the first signal as summoning lefty Perez, and denied Thompson’s appeal.
The shorter story: Hernandez held the Red Sox to an 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. The Red Sox went 5-for-6 against Wilhelmsen, Perez and Medina with RISP.
The three-game sweep made for Seattle’s ninth straight loss at Fenway Park, its eighth walk-off loss of the season and second in two nights — actually on the same calendar day because the Mariners fell in 15 innings to the Red Sox after Wednesday turned to Thursday.
That outcome did not seem possible through seven innings. The Mariners (50-58) manufactured a 3-1 lead, then loaded the bases in the fifth. Blanco, who also blasted a grand slam June 15 at Oakland shortly after he signed with the Mariners, knocked an 0-and-1 fastball from Ryan Dempster on an arcing shot over the wall in left, feet inside the foul pole.
The Red Sox put up little resistance after that as Hernandez cruised toward his 12th victory while lowering his ERA to an American League-best 2.30. He departed after 7.0 innings, having allowed one earned run on six hits with eight strikeouts and two walks.
Blanco wasn’t Hernandez’s only support. Kendrys Morales had one of his better games, going 4-for-5 with a run scored and an RBI, and Kyle Seager, who hit .396 in July, got off to a nice August start, going 2-for-4 with a triple, a walk, two runs scored and an RBI. He pushed his season batting average to .300.
After Brad Miller opened the game with a triple off Dempster, Seager brought him home with a bunt single, giving the Mariners a 1-0 lead. Justin Smoak’s RBI single in the third scored Seager, who had walked. David Ortiz’s sacrifice fly in the third scored Jacoby Ellsbury, who had doubled, trimming Seattle’s lead to 2-1.
After Seager tripled to right in the fifth, Morales’ single gave Seattle a 3-1 lead. The Mariners had yet another scoring opportunity when they loaded the bases with two outs — Smoak doubled, Dustin Ackley walked — and converted in a big way when Blanco blasted his grand slam, giving Hernandez and the Mariners a 7-1 lead.
Furbush replaced Hernandez in the eighth and gave up the home run to Victorino, just the beginning of Boston’s onslaught.
The Mariners begin a three-game set at Camden Yards in Baltimore Friday. RHP Aaron Harang (5-9, 4.89) will go for Seattle opposite RHP Chris Tillman (13-3, 3.62). Harang has allowed two earned runs in 12 innings since the All-Star break while Tillman pitched seven scoreleess innings in his last outing.
Following the series, the Mariners will return to Safeco Field Monday night for a three-game series with the Toronto Blue Jays.
NOTES: The Mariners have hit six grand slams: Dustin Ackley (April 4 at Toronto), Raul Ibanez (May 15 at New York), Kyle Seager (June 5 vs. Chicago White Sox), Henry Blanco (June 15 at Oakland), Nick Franklin (July 21 at Houston), Blanco (Aug. 1 at Boston) . . . Mariners have lost 17 games this season in their opponents’ final at-bat, including eight walk-off losses . . . Mariners have not only played 16 extra-inning games, they have played five that have lasted longer than 12 innings. No other AL team has played more than three games of 12 or more innings . . . Jesus Montero is batting .236 for the AAA Tacoma Rainiers.