The Mariners awoke July 27 in third place in the American League West, trailing the division-leading Oakland Athletics by 11½ games. That must seem a distant memory to the fading A’s, who arrived in Seattle Friday to open a big three-game series clinging to a 1½-game lead over the Mariners.
Make that a half-game lead.
After Fernando Rodney nailed down his 45th save (tying Kazuhiro Sasaki’s club record), Seattle (80-66) had a 4-2 win to hand the A’s their fifth loss in six games, and 14th in the last 19. The Mariners moved into a tie for the second AL wild card spot with the Royals, who lost 4-2 in Boston.
Robinson Cano got Seattle rolling in the first inning with an opposite-field, solo home run off Jason Hammel, in front of a more respectable audience of 29,090 at Safeco Field. It was the start the Mariners needed in a critical series, especially against a pitcher that shut them down 11 days ago.
The key moment came in the third inning with the Mariners holding a 2-0 lead after a Mike Zunino RBI double in the second. Starter James Paxton found himself in hot water when he walked three batters and allowed an RBI single to Josh Donaldson.
The big left-hander didn’t have his best command. Instead of generating his usual ground ball outs, the Athletics were squaring him up for hard outs to center and right field.
“His command was just a little off. He was pitching to the edges a little bit and got away from what makes him good, and that’s pitching to his power,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I think you saw he came back out and started pitching to his power. He did a good job from there on out.”
But Paxton battled, and on his 31st pitch of inning, he struck out Jed Lowrie to quash a bases-loaded threat. Paxton, improving to 6-2 and lowering his ERA to 1.83, pumped his fist and let out a loud shout, not typically seen from the soft-spoken rookie.
“I got a little fired up,” Paxton said. “I got that from (Felix Hernandez), I think. It was just the biggest point in the game right there. I’ve got to get that guy out to keep us in the game.”
Paxton settled down after that, despite some trouble in the fourth inning aided by a defensive miscue by Kyle Seager. After a Nate Freiman single, pitcher Hammel (hitting because A’s manager Bob Melvin had to insert DH Derek Norris at catcher for injured Geovany Soto in the third inning) dropped down a bunt that Seager bare-handed and threw to second rather than first. His throw sailed over Brad Miller’s head into center, giving the A’s runners on first and second with no outs.
The extra out allowed Sam Fuld to bring Freiman home with a sacrifice bunt two batters later to tie at 2. It didn’t faze the rookie. Paxton engineered another ground ball to end the inning.
Solo home runs by Logan Morrison and Kendrys Morales in the fifth and sixth innings gave him a lead. Paxton completed six innings and allowed two runs, one earned, on four hits and three walks. He struck out eight, his highest total since striking out nine in his season debut against the Angels April 2.
“I keep telling you guys he’s the glue to this rotation,” McClendon said. “He’s not a fluke, this young man’s good. He’s a big Canadian. He’s not scared, he’s tough. Tonight I think he proved that.”
McClendon turned to rookie reliever Carson Smith, a September call-up, to pitch the seventh and eighth innings in a tight game with playoff implications. The team carried eight relievers for two months entering September. The addition of Smith has only made Seattle’s bullpen more lethal.
“He’s been throwing extremely well. I love his sinker,” McClendon said. “I thought I would throw something at (the Athletics) that they hadn’t seen. This kid’s not fazed by what’s going on. He’s proven that.”
With two outs in the eighth, Charlie Furbush got a broken-bat pop out from Adam Dunn, leading to Rodney in the ninth. Again, the arrow-toting closer made it interesting by allowing consecutive singles to open the inning. But he settled down by getting Coco Crisp to pop out to third and strikeouts of Josh Reddick and Donaldson to end the game.
The win snapped a two-game losing streak, and opened the right way a stretch run of 17 games in 17 days to conclude the regular season.
“I told my guys . . . this is really playoff baseball,” McClendon said. “Averages, slumps, you throw all those things out the window. What you did against a guy the last time really makes no difference, it’s all about grinding your at-bats out, staying in your inner circle and believing in each other.”
Mariners OF Dustin Ackley (ankle) returned to the lineup Friday after missing four games. Ackley went 0-for-3 . . . Paxton was 4-0 with a 1.45 ERA over 31 innings at Safeco Field . . . Soto left the game with back spasms . . . Cano recorded his 55th multi-hit game of the season, second most in the AL behind Jose Altuve.