As the batting orders were exchanged Sunday before the Mariners’ series finale against the Oakland Athletics, home plate umpire Derryl Cousins posed for a blue-man group photo at home plate. The occasion was Cousins’ 4,000th game as a major league umpire.
Cousins, who needed extra-inning relief, should consider himself lucky. If the sometimes interminable, sometimes inexplicable and ultimately unforgettable five-hour marathon on Sunday had been the first game of his umpiring career, he might not have made it to 4,000.
Heck, he might not have made it to two.
Cousins and his fellow plate umpire called balls and strikes for 131 batters facing 13 different pitchers. One of them, Oakland left-hander Gio Gonalez, threw 108 pitches, which isn’t remarkable until you consider that Gonzalez didn’t appear on the Safeco Field pitcher’s mound until the top of the 10th inning.
And yet afterward, it was Don Wakamatsu who was gushing about his team’s willpower and perseverance after the Mariners’ second 8-7 victory in three games. On Friday night, they spotted Oakland an early five-run lead before Jose Lopez drove in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.
That thriller was merely a warm-up act for Sunday, when the Mariners twice recovered from three-run deficits – 3-0 in the first inning, and 7-4 in the 13th – before Lopez dropped a bases-loaded blooper into short center in the bottom of 15th inning.
The hit scored Franklin Gutierrez with the winning run and incited another celebratory burst from the first base dugout at Safeco Field, where the groundskeepers dance in the middle of games and the players throw Jose Lopez into a mosh pit after them.
“I like pressure,” said Lopez, who could have been speaking for the entire team.
They fall behind, they fail to advance baserunners and manufacture scoring opportunities, they swing too early in the count and never, ever are inclined to take a walk.
Off and on Sunday, for several hours at a time, it seemed as if the Mariners were guilty of all these failures – the A’s held them without a run in 10 different innings. And then you notice they scored eight runs on 16 hits and walked seven times.
Center fielder Gutierrez began his afternoon 0-for-2, only to finish the day with his on-base percentage improving from .333 to .366. Three walks after the seventh-inning stretch can do wonders for a batter’s on-base numbers.
Wladimir Balentien, the left fielder, enjoyed an even more radical makeover to his statistical portfolio. He showed up at the ballpark on Sunday batting .310; he wakes up today batting .353. Balentien managed to get on base five times Sunday.
If the Mariners offense was a collaborative effort – every starting position player contributed at least one hit – the supporting cast of pitchers showed up like so many extras in a battlefield scene in “Braveheart.”
“We like to talk about playing everybody,” said Wakamatsu, “but maybe not to the extent we did today.”
Among the seven Seattle relievers summoned after Chris Jakubauskas was removed in the fifth inning was Denny Stark, who in a previous lifetime – two Tommy John surgeries ago – was the PCL Pitcher of the Year and a top prospect with the Rainiers. Stark was dealt to Colorado in the lamented deal for Jeff Cirillo, and essentially disappeared after his career-threatening injuries.
Unemployed and restless, he pleaded for a tryout with the Mariners in 2007, and earned a job in the minors. On Sunday, Stark’s persistence paid off when he was called by Wakamatsu to begin the seventh inning.
“The whole thing is so surreal,” Stark said. “I’ve waited five years go get back into a major-league game. And to get back in a game like this one …”
Stark wasn’t the only Mariners reliever who returned from obscurity on Sunday. Winning pitcher Jason Vargas, acquired in the J.J. Putz trade with the Mets, hadn’t competed in a big-league game since 2007.
Vargas faced 10 batters, striking out four. He worked fast and purposefully, and if he’d have been forced to face 10 more batters, he would have faced 10 more batters.
“It kind of turned,” said Wakamatsu, “into a war of attrition.”
On the field, it did. In the Mariners clubhouse, where the pitchers gathered in front of the TV, the long day’s journey into dusk turned into a search for karma.
“We switched chairs when we thought it would change luck, we ate lucky peanuts,” Jakubauskas said. “We did what we had to do.”
If anything can be determined from the first 25 games of the 2009 Mariners, it’s this:
No game is lost in the first inning.
No game is lost in the ninth inning.
No game is lost, even, in the 13th inning, though by then it can’t hurt to believe in lucky chairs and lucky peanuts, not to mention the mosh pit that always seems to be waiting for Jose Lopez.
John McGrath: 253-597-8742; ext. 6154