TORONTO — The terrible Texas trip seems long ago, even if it’s been only 10 days since its miserable end.
And in those 10 days, the Seattle Mariners have righted themselves with stellar pitching and actual offense.
With Saturday’s 8-1 win over the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre, the Mariners have won seven games in their past nine in those 10 days, while winning three straight series to inch closer to .500 with a 15-17 record.
“The guys have made steady progress,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Wedge never wavered in the belief his team would right itself. Even at the lowest point of the season thus far — after the Mariners dropped their second consecutive series to the last-place Houston Astros — Wedge maintained that this team was much better than it was playing.
He thought the offense would come eventually. He reiterated that Dustin Ackley would hit despite an awful start. He promised the Mariners would be better.
So far, he’s been right.
It’s premature to pencil the Mariners into the playoffs, but fans will gladly take the higher quality of baseball they’ve seen in the past 10 days.
While Seattle seems to be rising, Toronto is in a downward spiral that may cost manager John Gibbons his job.
In the past two games, the Mariners have out-pitched, out-hit and out-played the Blue Jays — a chic preseason World Series pick — in every facet. The Jays were booed intermittently throughout the game and showered with a chorus of jeers from the crowd of 35,754 as the
teams did their postgame handshakes.
Hisashi Iwakuma continued his marvelous start to the season, giving Seattle another solid outing. He pitched seven innings, giving up one run, five hits and three walks with five strikeouts to improve to 3-1.
Iwakuma lowered his earned-run average to 1.61 and has allowed one run or none in five of his seven starts this year.
“He’s just been so consistent for us this season and he was again today,” Wedge said.
Iwakuma’s first inning was a little shaky after Michael Saunders’ second leadoff home run of the season staked him to a 1-0 lead.
Home plate umpire Ed Hickox’s somewhat tight strike zone led to a leadoff walk, and a pair of singles sandwiched around a fly-ball out loaded the bases for Toronto.
Iwakuma didn’t give in. He threw three consecutive nasty split-finger fastballs to strike out Colby Rasmus for the second out. He needed just four pitches to strike out Rajai Davis to end the inning, getting him swinging with another nasty split finger pitch in the dirt.
“I was as impressed as anything with that first inning,” Wedge said. “You talk about big league pitching, that’s it right there. To get out of that the way he did, especially early in the game, it helps to push your squad in the right direction early.”
Even the normally poker-faced Iwakuma showed emotion with a bit of a yell and a facial expression of accomplishment as he headed toward the dugout.
“That second strikeout was big,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “Being able to locate a split finger down in the zone was big. Being able to come out with a good pitch in a tough situation was awesome.”
It seemed as though a pitchers’ duel was setting in. After giving up the leadoff homer to Saunders, Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey settled in and found command of his knuckleball, retiring 10 hitters in a row at one point.
But it all fell apart for the former Mariners pitcher with two outs in the fourth. With Kendrys Morales on first after a single, Dickey lost the feel of his floating pitch and walked Raul Ibañez and Kelly Shoppach to load the bases.
Ackley unloaded them all with one swing. Dickey left a knuckleball over the middle of the plate on a 3-2 count and Ackley drove it over the wall in right-center field for his first career grand slam and first home run of the season.
“I was coming off the at-bat before where I didn’t even swing the bat,” Ackley said. “I told myself I was going to be aggressive. I missed the first two — I swung out. Fortunately, I think he threw me a ‘get-it-over’ knuckleball with a 3-2 count and bases loaded and trying not to walk me. And I just put a good swing on it.”
The game went from 1-0 to 5-0 and Iwakuma went into cruise control, content to let the wild swinging Jays get themselves out.
Iwakuma, with the blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand not bothering him, was sent by Wedge to start the seventh inning despite having thrown 95 pitches.
Iwakuma issued a leadoff walk that eventually came around to score on former Mariners utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki’s sacrifice fly. But Iwakuma was able to limit the damage to one run. He threw a season-high 108 pitches.
“It was good to stretch him out,” Wedge said.
The one run mattered little since Seattle continued to pile on the runs. Saunders hit his second solo homer of the game off Dickey in the fifth inning, Shoppach added an RBI double in the sixth and Saunders doubled home another run in the ninth off reliever Brad Lincoln.
Saunders continues to hit well at the Rogers Centre. The native of Canada has four doubles, five homers and 11 RBI in his past 10 games in Toronto.
“Some places are just more comfortable than others,” Saunders said.
For Wedge, it’s comfortable having Saunders in the lineup. Since his return from a shoulder injury, Saunders has seven hits — including a double and three home runs – in five games. But it’s his intensity and presence at the top of order that makes the difference to Wedge.
“He had a big day for us,” Wedge said. “He just brings a lot of energy and intensity to the top of our lineup and to our lineup in general. He’s going to put up spirited at-bats. You are going to have to work to get him out.”Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish