If the Seattle Mariners find any more ways to unravel, that team-record 17-game losing streak from July could be in jeopardy.
Returning from a trip that concluded with six defeats, the Mariners actually had a few things going for them Friday night at Safeco Field: a two-run lead in the top of the seventh, a starting pitcher who appeared to have plenty of fuel left, and an opponent that stumbled into Seattle with the worst record in baseball.
And yet the Mariners still lost, 3-2, to the Minnesota Twins. They lost because relief pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen ruined a nice defensive play in the seventh inning by making a mental mistake and then a physical one.
The bases were loaded with one out when Wilhelmsen used his bare hand to field a Denard Span comebacker. Even though catcher Jesus Montero and pitching coach Carl Willis had just alerted Wilhelmsen about the urgency of throwing home for a force out, Wilhelmsen pivoted and sailed the ball past second base. Instead of two outs and no runs across the plate, the Twins had one out, one in and the bases still loaded.
Was Wilhelmsen so stunned about fielding the ball with his bare hand that he went into a split-second state of confusion?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess so, even though the last fricking thing I heard was ‘Go home if there’s a comebacker to you.’ We would’ve been all right, set with two outs. I got what I wanted.
“And then I just had a brain fart, and a pretty important one. It cost us the ballgame.”
Facing a team that brought a 15-inning hit drought into Safeco Field, starter Jason Vargas looked like he was going to stop the losing streak at six. Vargas, who had given up three hits through six innings, had the Twins swinging early on his change-ups and late on his fastball. He struck out five, and even when the Minnesota bats were able to make contact, the ball generally stayed in the infield.
The doomed seventh began with Vargas retiring Danny Valencia on a routine grounder to shortstop. But when Twins first baseman Chris Parmalee – the No. 7 batter in a light-hitting lineup – crushed a line-drive double off the fence in left-center, manager Eric Wedge made the sort of call that’s praised as fearless when it works and overaggressive when it doesn’t.
This one didn’t.
Vargas had thrown 103 pitches, close to the season-high of 108 he threw last week in Detroit. But it was a cool night, the left-hander was working in a stress-free rhythm, and Parmalee’s double was the hardest thing hit by the Twins in four days.
“I felt like I had a lot left,” Vargas said. “It is what it is. The skipper’s got a good handle on things and knows what he wants to see in a matchup.”
What Wedge wanted was for Wilhelmsen, a right-hander, to face switch-hitting second baseman Alexi Casilla.
Wedge used numbers to play his hunch: Casilla began the night hitting .409 as a right-hander, .196 as a left-hander. He had one walk and no strikeouts as a right-hander, and no walks and eight strikeouts as a left-hander.
“Vargas had pitched a very good ballgame. But we had our best bullpen guy, with the exception of Brandon League, ready to go,” said Wedge, acknowledging that the switch-hitting splits of Casilla were prominent in his decision to turn the game over to Wilhelmsen.
Wilhelmsen usually has pretty good control with a fastball that clocks more than 95 mph, but this time it was all over the place. He walked Casilla, and then walked pinch-hitter Trevor Plouffe to load the bases.
Still, Wilhelmsen was in a position to exercise some damage control – or perhaps even escape the jam altogether – when he grabbed the bouncer on the mound, only to go blank on the advice he had just been given.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Wedge said. “We’re in every game, we’ve got a chance to win every game, and then late in ballgames, when experience takes over we’re not doing enough.”
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