KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When he returned to his job after a month-long recovery from a mild stroke, Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge said it was important for him not to make something bigger than it was.
After Monday’s listless 3-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals, Wedge tried to maintain patience with his team, but keeping his frustration level under control is getting more difficult with each game.
On a Labor Day with near-perfect weather at Kauffman Stadium, the Mariners were anything but perfect, losing to a team that hasn’t given up hope on a wild-card playoff spot.
What bothered Wedge most? Was it striking out 13 times?
Stranding 10 runners on base?
Going 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position?
Twice failing to score with runners on first and second with no outs?
Not getting a sacrifice bunt down when he asked?
Or was it the Nos. 4 and 5 hitters — Kendrys Morales and Justin Smoak — going 0-for-8 with five strikeouts?
It was everything.
“We’ve got a lot of guys here that have to continue to learn how to play the game and understand what it takes to win a ballgame,” Wedge said.
Wedge wasn’t completely excluding rookies Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino and Abraham Almonte in that assessment, but he knows their mistakes will happen because of sheer inexperience.
Wedge leveled his criticism at his core of younger but experienced players, naming Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders.
“Those guys have been around here a little bit, and they need to be doing better,” Wedge said. “I grouped them all together because they came up about the same time. Some are doing better than others, but we need to see a bit more progress out of them.”
That quartet was supposed to be the foundation of the team going forward. All four have had extended periods of outstanding play, but Wedge wants more than just long spurts.
“September is a good time to do that,” he said. “It’s all in there. We’ve seen it from all the guys. We know they can have success at this level. But to be consistent at this level and make the adjustments you need to make — not just from game to game, but at-bat to at-bat and now, with those guys, from pitch to pitch – that’s where we have to be more consistent.”
The Mariners are in the final month of the season playing out the string. Any postseason hopes died in July, but there will be no free games: Five of their final seven series are against playoff contenders.
“I want to see improvement,” Wedge said. “I don’t mind taking a step back if it’s worth two steps forward. And that’s collectively, not just individually.”
There is an expectation of effort from the players. After all, they have proven very little on the field. Potential and possibilities won’t win games next season.
Managers often invoke the idea of “grinding,” and that’s what Wedge thinks he should see from his players.
“I’ve already told them that,” he said. “They need to play every game like it’s their last. That’s the attitude you have to have when you play and compete. People remember the way you finished, whether it be collectively as a ballclub or individually.”
If they don’t improve, the Mariners (62-75) could be remembered as a team that lost 90 games.
With Felix Hernandez on the mound, Monday’s game should have been the most winnable of the four-game set with the Royals, even with Kansas City starting a left-hander on the mound.
But it was a left-handed reliever who gave Seattle the most trouble.
The Mariners chased Royals starter Danny Duffy after 32/3 innings and 91 pitches. They worked counts on Duffy, drew four walks and had five hits, but they managed only one run.
In the first inning, Seattle had runners on first and second with one out, but Morales and Smoak struck out.
In the second, Seattle had runners on first and second with no outs. But Ackley didn’t get a sacrifice bunt down and flied out, and the next two batters couldn’t come up with hits.
In the third, Seattle again had runners on first and second with no outs but failed to bring them home. Morales struck out, and Smoak and Saunders flied out.
“The one recurring thing is not taking advantage of opportunities offensively,” Wedge said.
It’s why he had Ackley attempt to bunt in the second inning.
“It’s indicative of us against left-handers and not putting runs on the board,” Wedge said. “We were trying to get on the board early and do something.”
They finally did something with two outs in the fourth.
Almonte doubled to left-center field, and Miller followed with a triple just out of the reach of diving right fielder David Lough. It snapped the Mariners’ streaks of 20 consecutive scoreless innings and 22 innings without an extra-base hit.
“I just wanted to set the tone,” Miller said. “Abe rocked one in the gap, and I just wanted to come through and hopefully get things going.”
That didn’t happen. The Royals lifted Duffy after he walked Franklin. Manager Ned Yost brought in left-handed long reliever Will Smith, who shut the Mariners down over the next 4 innings, allowing just one hit and striking out eight.
“He had a pretty good slider and threw it tight,” Miller said of Smith. “He got in a good rhythm there, and if you didn’t hit the one good pitch you got, he did a nice job of putting us away.”
Meanwhile, Hernandez couldn’t hold the 1-0 lead he was given.
The Royals tied the score in the fourth on three consecutive singles — none of them hit hard.
In the fifth inning, Jarrod Dyson beat out a covering Hernandez on a ground ball to first. Dyson and Alcides Escobar perfectly executed a hit-and-run to put runners on the corners. Dyson scored on a wild pitch, and Escobar came home on a sacrifice fly from Emilio Bonifacio.
The Mariners received a small scare when Hernandez began grabbing at his lower back in the seventh inning. He left the game after meeting with Wedge and trainer Rob Nodine on the mound. He later was diagnosed with a muscle cramp.
“It’s nothing bad,” Hernandez said. “I will be OK.”Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish