SEATTLE — Baseball can be a strange game.
It was just four days ago that the Seattle Mariners had lost their second series to the lowly Houston Astros – a team with a $20 million payroll – and finished 1-5 on a six-game trip to Texas.
On Sunday – thanks to late solo home runs from Jason Bay and Michael Morse, and the outstanding pitching of Hisashi Iwakuma – the Mariners capped a bounce-back series by beating the Los Angeles Angels, a team with a $128 million payroll, for the third time in four games.
Seattle’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory at Safeco Field provided the Mariners with their first series of the win of the season.
“A comeback to win to clinch the series – that’s the type of thing that can get you going,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “These guys, I like the way they are carrying themselves right now. They are starting to get back on track.”
If the Mariners (11-16) are getting back on track, the Angels can’t even see the track. They fell to 9-15 on the season and are fourth in the AL West behind the Mariners.
“It’s way too early to look at that,” Morse said. “You can look at that, but we won’t.”
After the awful trip to Texas, Wedge was just happy to see his team show signs of playing better – particularly at Safeco.
“Obviously we still have a ways to go offensively,” Wedge said. “But you can see certain indicators with certain guys that they are starting to head in the right direction. Eventually that will collectively translate and then we’ll be on our way.”
The Mariners didn’t need too much offense Sunday with Hisashi Iwakuma on the mound.
The right-hander produced another stellar early-season performance. He pitched six innings, allowing just one unearned run on three hits with no walks and eight strikeouts.
“Iwakuma was outstanding again,” Wedge said. “He did a great job pitching against a very good lineup.”
More important, Iwakuma’s nagging blister on the middle finger of his right hand seems to be improving.
“I think we are heading in the right direction,” Wedge said. “If we would have pushed him one more inning I think we put him right back to where we’ve been with it. He came out better today than he has.”
With an off day Thursday, Wedge will push Iwakuma back a couple days in the rotation to allow the blister to heal more.
“It’s much better than the last start,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “More time off will help the finger heal, the skin will get much harder. I think it will be better down the road.”
It’s difficult to imagine Iwakuma pitching any better. He lowered his earned run average to 1.67 in four starts this season, and over his last two starts he has struck out 19 hitters in 11 innings.
He also seems to pitch very well against the Angels with an ERA of 1.03 in six appearances, five them starts.
“I thought I pitched with a better tempo today,” Iwakuma said.
The lone Angels run came in the sixth inning. Iwakuma gave up a leadoff single to Andrew Romine. Peter Bourjos’ sacrifice bunt moved him to second base. Romine then scored when Mike Trout’s routine grounder to shortstop Robert Andino bounced under Andino’s glove and into left field for an error.
It looked as though Jason Vargas might make that one run hold up. The former Mariner left-hander, who was outstanding at Safeco Field during his time in Seattle, pitched well here again.
Vargas held the Mariners scoreless through the first six innings, giving up four hits and striking out five.
One of those strikeout victims was Bay, who looked befuddled by Vargas’ nasty change-up in his first two at-bats by striking out swinging both times.
So Bay decided the best way to beat Vargas’ change-up was not let him throw it.
Bay led off the seventh inning by swinging at the first pitch he saw – an 86-mph fastball down the middle – which Bay deposited into the left-field stands for a home run to tie the game at 1.
“I was looking for a fastball early and attack it,” Bay said. “That’s the plan a lot of times, but right there I got one I could handle.”
The game didn’t stay tied for too long. An inning later, Morse fell behind 1-2. But Vargas made a mistake and left a fastball up. Morse jumped all over it, ripping a line-drive homer into the bullpen in left to provide what proved to be the winning run.
“After the first time around the order, he started throwing that change-up and it was pretty unhittable,” Morse said. “It was tough, but we tried to get on his fastball early in the count.”
Given a 2-1 lead, Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen came out in the ninth to try to shut down the heart of the Angels’ lineup. As he did the previous night, Wilhelmsen retired Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Mark Trumbo in order for his eighth save of the season. Carter Capps (2-1) picked up the win in relief.
What does the come-from-behind win and series win mean for the Mariners?
“We beat a good team three out of four games, but it’s how we play tomorrow,” Bay said. “The nature of baseball, it’s hard to get momentum day to day because you play so much. In a perfect world, you’d like to think it would carry over, but that’s not just going to happen.”