OAKLAND — On the day when the Seattle Mariners decided to give their closer a break from his duties, you just knew they would find themselves in a tight save situation later that night.
True to baseball form, the Mariners found themselves clinging to a one-run lead over the Oakland A’s in the bottom of the ninth inning on Friday.
Veteran Oliver Perez, who’d converted to a reliever in 2010, was on the O.co Coliseum mound trying to erase the recent nightmares the Mariners have experienced in similar situations the past few weeks.
The left-hander came through.
Perez survived a two-out single from Josh Reddick by getting Adam Rosales to fly out weakly to right field to preserve a 3-2 win over the A’s.
It was the first save of Perez’s 12-year big league career.
With a wide grin, he gave a big fist pump, then a hard handshake with catcher Mike Zunino.
“That was my first time,” Perez said. “That situation is very special.”
Perez’s past life has been often told. He went from a promising starting pitcher with the Pirates to a $36 million failure with the New York Mets amid arm and knee injuries.
After an abbreviated 2011 season where he pitched in Double-A in the Washington organization, Perez contemplated retirement.
He gave it one last shot to remake himself as a reliever. The Mariners took a chance on him last season, signing him to a minor league contract after seeing him pitch well in the Mexican winter league. Now, he’s one of the Mariners’ best relievers.
“Everything you do in time is going to pay off,” he said.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge decided to go with Perez because of his overall big-league experience, but he also wanted to keep left-handed hitters John Jaso and Brandon Moss from pinch-hitting in the ninth.
“I didn’t want to see those guys come up there,” Wedge said. “And I felt like the first time we do this without (former closer Tom) Wilhelmsen, a veteran guy is who we ideally want to use.”
Perez didn’t even know he was going to pitch the ninth inning.
“I was kind of surprised,” he said. “I started throwing in the eighth and I sat down and they told me I was going in.”
After his first save, Perez wasn’t interested in lobbying for his second one. He has no grand designs on supplanting Wilhelmsen.
“No, I just want to do whatever situation they want me in,” he said. “Whether it’s the first inning or the eighth inning, if it’s for one batter or even pinch running, just go out every day to play like it might be my last.”
For Zunino, his best days are still ahead of him, but the rookie catcher achieved a personal milestone in his second game. With the score tied 1-1 in the top of the seventh, Zunino hit his first career home run, a majestic towering blast to center field off A’s starter Tommy Milone.
“That ball went a long way and he put an easy swing on it,” Wedge said. “You could tell that ball went up different.”
Zunino sat on a change-up from Milone.
“It was awesome,” Zunino said. “I’m just happy it came at a time where it really helped the team out. It’s obviously awesome to get the first one out of the way. I think the bigger part is getting a ‘W.’ That was my first one, too.”
It was also for the first win for Mariners starter Joe Saunders away from Safeco Field this season. The lefty was solid for Seattle, tossing seven innings, allowing one run on five hits while walking two and striking out four.
Saunders, who joked about sacrificing a chicken in hopes of changing his luck on the road, didn’t resort to something that drastic. Instead, he just he threw strikes and controlled the game.
“My command was good,” Saunders said. “I didn’t think going inside was very good, so I just tried to keep them off balance. My sinker was down for the most part, the change-up was there and breaking balls to lefties were good.”
Saunders did all of that while working with Zunino, who’d never caught him in a game.
“Zunino was great back there,” Saunders said. “We were on the same page all night.”
Zunino, 22, was playing college baseball a year ago at this time.
“That makes me feel really old,” Saunders said. “He’s obviously got a lot of talent. He’s a great receiver back there. He’s obviously got some pop. He can throw pretty well, too. I feel like the sky is the limit for him.”
The Mariners came out hitting against Milone, getting a single from Jason Bay to lead off the first inning, a double from Michael Morse to lead off the second inning and a double from Brendan Ryan to start the third inning. But Seattle managed one run in those three innings as Morse scored on Zunino’s double-play ball in the second.
The A’s answered in the fifth inning as a misplayed blooper in right field on a miscommunication between second baseman Nick Franklin and right fielder Bay turned into an RBI double for Eric Sogard.
The Mariners took the lead on Zunino’s blast and then tacked on another as Raul Ibañez scored Franklin on an RBI single off of first baseman Nate Freiman’s glove.
That extra run proved critical as Chris Young belted a solo homer into the upper deck of left field to cut the lead to 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning.