Game No. 161 had meaning. A crowd of 32,716 playoff-starved Mariners faithful gave it feeling. To top all, a loss in Texas by the Athletics loss about two hours in gave it substance. All that was missing Saturday night at Safeco was a walk-off conclusion.
Afforded multiple game-ending and season-extending opportunities, Seattle finally came through in the 11th inning when Austin Jackson grounded into a fielder’s choice to score Brad Miller from third and lift the Mariners to a 2-1 win over the Angels.
The Mariners conclude the 162-game season starting at 1:10 p.m. Sunday, about an hour after the the A’s, losers of 30 of the past 45, including 5-4 Saturday, pit Sonny Gray against the Rangers’ Derek Holland in Arlington. If the Mariners win and the A’s lose, the teams tie with 87-75 records and will meet at Safeco Field Monday in a one-game playoff for the right to meet Kansas City Tuesday in a one-game wild-card playoff.
With one out in the 11th and runners on first and third, Jackson, in his third consecutive plate appearance with a chance to give his team a lead, hit a grounder to the right side, then ran full-throttle to first. The bag, 90 feet away, seemed like 900 at that moment to manager Lloyd McClendon.
“It felt like that play took about an hour-and-a-half,” he said. “I think my heart stopped maybe two or three times.”
The speedy Jackson barely beat the throw from replacement left-fielder Sean O’Malley, acting as the Angels’ fifth infielder in a drawn-in infield.
“I almost dove for it,” Jackson said. “I don’t think I’ve ever dove at first, but it was definitely running through my head right there.”
The hit was Jackson’s second career game-winning hit and the second walk-off win for the Mariners this season. It sent an electric Safeco Field crowd, itching for the moment for an hour, into a frenzy as the bench cleared to celebrate with their center fielder.
“I really can’t explain it,” Jackson said. ”It still really didn’t set in even after (the umpire) said safe.”
Hours earlier, James Paxton answered the bell for the Mariners coming off the worst start of his young career. In Toronto, Paxton (6-4, 3.04 ERA) had no feel for any of his offerings. While he didn’t return to the vintage form he showed prior, he was better. He still lacked the feel for his fastball and curveball, but was effective nonetheless.
“You definitely want to get that sour taste out of your mouth,” Paxton said. “My command wasn’t as good as I’d like it to be, I was falling behind in some counts . . . But (I) just battled.”
The left-hander limited the Angels to one run on four hits and three walks over 5.2 innings. He struck out four in his fourth appearance against Los Angeles. The Angels scored a run in the second inning when a C.J. Cron infield single, knocked down by Kyle Seager, scooted far enough away to allow David Freese to score.
It was tough sledding for the Mariners for the second consecutive game against Angels left-hander C.J. Wilson. In Anaheim 10 days ago, the Mariners were held to one hit over seven scoreless innings in a 5-0 loss. It wasn’t any better through five innings Saturday. The M’s mustered two singles and a pair of walks against Wilson (13-10, 4.51 ERA) while falling behind 1-0.
In the sixth inning, Safeco came alive as the Mariners put runners on first and second with one out after a Chris Taylor single and Dustin Ackley was hit. The Mariners and their fans were left wanting. Robinson Cano grounded into a fielder’s choice to short on a nice back-handed stop by Erick Aybar, and Kendrys Morales hit a lazy fly to left off the end of his bat.
An inning later, Seattle finally broke through. Seager worked a leadoff walk after missing a homer to right by two feet. Logan Morrison, a .324 hitter in September, laced a double into the right-center field gap to score Seager, racing from first on contact. Angels reliever Fernando Salas prevented further damage with strikeouts of Chris Taylor and Austin Jackson to end the inning.
Wilson was lifted by manager Mike Scioscia after six-plus innings. The 33-year-old veteran yielded one run on four hits and three walks to go with three strikeouts.
Seattle’s bullpen, in its biggest game of the season, had seven relievers combine to pitch 5.1 scoreless frames on three hits against one of the best offensive clubs in the league.
“Our bullpen was fabulous, just fabulous,” McClendon said.
Sunday, Felix Hernandez takes to the hill for an occasion much anticipated after the pitching rotation was laid out earlier in the month.
“That’s what we planned,” McClendon said. “I expect Felix to be Felix — to do the best that he can for as long as he can, and we’ll see what happens.
“All I know is we’re still in the ring. We’re still throwing punches.”
MLB announced a scoring change from Hernandez’s Tuesday start against the Blue Jays. The official scorer changed a bunt single to a Hernandez throwing error. The change lowered Hernandez’s earned-run total to four (instead of eight) and season ERA to 2.18, which may win him the ERA title . . . With 32,716 in attendance, the Mariners surpassed two million in attendance for first time since 2010 . . . Only other Mariners walk-off in 2014 was a home run by Seager in the ninth inning of a 5-3 win over Houston April 23 . . . Dominic Leone recorded his eighth win of the season, most among Mariners relievers.