BALTIMORE — Michael Saunders made sure the Seattle Mariners could breathe a little easier.
After what has transpired on this trip and for much of the season, a four-run lead was far from safe, but it certainly was better than the alternative — a two-run lead entering the bottom of the ninth inning.
Saunders hit his second home run of the game — a two-run blast — in the top of the ninth to give the Mariners’ wounded psyche some much-needed reinforcement, and Danny Farquhar worked a 1-2-3 ninth to secure an 8-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
So that home run from Saunders, it was kind of big for the Mariners’ mindset?
“Huge, bigger than big, just huge,” acting manager Robby Thompson said.
Farquhar came on in the eighth inning to pitch the Mariners out of a jam with two outs. With runners on first and second, the ultra-dangerous Adam Jones at the plate and the Mariners hanging on to a 6-4 lead, Farquhar got him to fly out to center to end the threat.
With one out in the top of the ninth, Justin Smoak doubled to right off Darren O’Day. With a 1-2 count, Saunders stayed on a sinker and drove it to the seats in left-center field.
“It was awesome,” Smoak said. “I was excited he hit it over the fence so I didn’t have to run hard to home plate. We knew going into the top of the ninth, we needed to get at least one more, and to get two there, it was big for us.”
It was big for Farquhar, who was going to pitch the ninth in a situation he hadn’t faced as a big leaguer.
“I’m sure it took some pressure off Farquhar,” said Saunders, who drove in five runs.
“Thank God Saunders hit that two-run homer in the ninth,” Farquhar said. “That definitely made it significantly easier.”
Nothing about the ninth inning has been easy for the Mariners for much of this season, but Farquhar made it look that way.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound right-hander with the big fastball struck out major-league home run leader Chris Davis and Matt Wieters, then got Henry Urrutia to line out to end the game.
Because of the out in the eighth, Farquhar was credited with his first big-league save. It came complete with the customary postgame beer shower.
“It was a big deal to me,” Farquhar said of his save. “I was really excited about the beer shower. I’ve done a ton of them in the three months I’ve been here. I just wanted to get a stupid beer shower, and I got it. It was a lot of fun.”
For a good chunk of the season, hitting wasn’t much fun for Saunders. After a solid start was sidetracked by a stint on the disabled list, Saunders sunk into a cavernous slump at the plate. He hit a combined .204 (32-for-157) for May and June with 53 strikeouts. There was talk he would be sent to Triple A to figure it out. Instead, he had to do it at the big-league level.
“I know I dug myself quite a hole early in the season,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve been working myself out of it.”
He has found a comfort level at the plate, cutting down on the pre-swing movement with his hands.
“Something wasn’t working for me, and I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “It’s a game where you have to adapt. I was missing balls that I should be driving, and that was the telltale sign. I was trying to make it a little simpler and get back to basics. It kind of happened naturally.”
On Saturday, he got a little help from Buck Showalter without the Orioles’ manager realizing it.
Saunders looked out of sorts in his first two at-bats against Baltimore starter Scott Feldman, twice striking out swinging on high fastballs.
In the fifth, the Mariners took a 3-2 lead on Michael Morse’s two-out RBI single. Smoak followed with a single, and Showalter had seen enough. He pulled Feldman and brought in left-hander T.J. McFarland to face Saunders.
“Yes, surprisingly, I was kind of excited to see the lefty in that situation and get (Feldman) out of there because he had my number tonight,” Saunders said.
It was evident when Saunders yanked a 2-2 slider over the wall in right-center field for a three-run homer to push the lead to 6-2.
That lead was enough for starter Erasmo Ramirez, who had his best outing since being called up from Triple-A Tacoma.
Ramirez gave up four runs on four hits with no walks and six strikeouts. Over the first six innings, he gave up two runs — solo homers by Wieters and Manny Machado. In the seventh, he gave up a single and a double. Both runners scored off reliever Charlie Furbush.
“He pounded the strike zone much better, and his secondary stuff was much better,” Thompson said of Ramirez. “That’s a good sign for him and a good sign for us.”
It wasn’t anything fancy for Ramirez. He had command of his pitches and went after hitters.
“It was way better,” Ramirez said. “I was being more aggressive with hitters. They got free swingers. In my mind, I said, ‘Just keeping throwing strikes.’ The two homers were on bad pitches with bad location.”
Besides Saunders, Smoak had a big game. He hit his 10th homer of the season in the second inning to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. With the homer, a single, a double and two walks, he reached base five times, tying a career high.
Brad Miller tied his career high with three hits.Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish