There were a few cynics standing around Michael Saunders when he said Sunday the Seattle Mariners weren’t going to be satisfied with a .500 season.
That was the talk.
On Monday, Saunders did the walk.
Against the Cleveland Indians, Saunders pulled his team from behind with a two-run home run, then broke a tie with another as the Mariners won, 5-3 – their sixth consecutive victory.
Home runs by Saunders and Eric Thames put up the runs, but the game came down to the ninth inning when closer Tom Wilhelmsen loaded the bases with one out but got a Dustin Ackley-to-Brendan Ryan-to-Justin Smoak double play to end it.
“Tommy’s done such a wonderful job for us the past few months, he’s been unbelievable,” manager Eric Wedge said. “That’s not the way you draw it up, but he executed pitches when he had to.”
That left Seattle five games under .500 (59-64), the closest they’ve been since May 26 when they were 21-25.
Saunders was changing his tune after hitting homers No. 12 and 13.
“We’re not satisfied to have a nice run, get near or to .500,” he said. “We want to be a winning team.”
Wedge has said for weeks that his young team hasn’t just been learning how to win at the big-league level but learning how to win different kinds of games.
“At this level, to win consistently you have to be able to come from behind, win games late that have been close all night, win with pitching, with hitting,” Wedge said.
This one had a little of everything.
Seattle trailed when Cleveland leadoff hitter Jason Kipnis hit the right-field foul pole with Kevin Millwood’s fifth pitch.
That started a night of comebacks, by both teams, that turned into a battle of the bullpens. The Mariners had more comebacks – and the better bullpen.
“This was just a dogfight all night,” Saunders said.
Saunders put the Mariners ahead in the third inning after Ackley’s two-out infield single, hitting an Ubaldo Jimenez fastball high and deep over the center-field wall for a 2-1 lead.
A three-hits-and-a-walk Indians rally in the fifth inning let Cleveland leapfrog to a 3-2 lead, and a small Safeco Field crowd of 14,687 grew restless.
Good as he was, Saunders wasn’t working alone Monday.
“Eric Thames has settled in nicely with this team, gotten comfortable with his role, comfortable with his teammates,” Wedge said. “You have to let players play, then have conversations. You have to see them first.”
Two outs into the sixth inning, right fielder Thames – obtained from Toronto in the Steve Delabar trade – homered to right-center field to even it up again.
Since joining the Mariners last month, Thames has batted .286 with two home runs and seven RBI.
By the time the Mariners tied it, both Millwood and Jimenez were gone.
In the seventh inning, No. 9 hitter Ryan opened with a walk, Ackley bunted him to second base and Saunders fell behind in the count, 0-2.
“In the first inning, I was ahead in the count, 3-1, and looked fastball,” Saunders said. “I got it. The past few weeks, I might have rolled over that pitch. I stayed through it, didn’t try to pull it.”
And in the seventh?
“Hanging slider,” he said.
Saunders hit that second homer – his third in two days – into the right-field stands, and the Mariners led, 5-3.
Game over? That would have been too easy, and if these young Mariners have learned anything in 2012, it’s that winning isn’t easy.
Wilhelmsen got into big trouble with one out, got a visit from pitching coach Carl Willis, then got a ground-ball double play and his 18th save.
Left fielder Trayvon Robinson had the busiest night in franchise history, making 10 catches to set a team record at the position.
One of those catches was a foul ball headed into the stands along the foul line. On the dead run, Robinson went up and over the wall and snatched the ball several seats deep.
“He’s one hell of an outfielder,” Saunders said. “You have no idea how tough that play is.”email@example.com