Fernando Rodney had just watched Carson Smith escape an eighth-inning jam Friday night when the phone rang in the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen.
The message: Rodney was to warm up in order to pitch the ninth inning in what would be his first save situation since he lost his closer’s job after blowing a lead June 2 against the New York Yankees.
So informed, Rodney asked, “ ‘Me? Are you sure about that?’ ” He figured Smith, after a 10-pitch effort, would return for the ninth inning. Told no and to get ready, Rodney responded, “ ‘Vamos! Let’s go.’ ”
Rodney then worked around a one-out single in closing out a 3-1 victory over the Los Angeles Angels for his 15th save in 18 chances. It was also his sixth consecutive scoreless outing.
The entire sequence raises several points:
The short answer is not yet, at least not on a full-time basis.
“My hope,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “is Rodney becomes that lock-down ninth-inning guy again. I think we’re a better club if he’s in the ninth, Carson is in the eighth and (Mark) Lowe and (Charlie) Furbush in the seventh.
“It closes the gap tremendously.
“That’s my hope. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen. For right now, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing. We’ve got to win ballgames.”
Smith is 5 for 5 in save situations since replacing Rodney as the first option to protect ninth-inning leads.
“If you lose the game in the eighth,” McClendon said, “the ninth means nothing. I thought it was the best chance to preserve that lead at that particular time.”
McClendon called on Smith to face Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, who were each hitless in four previous at-bats against him.
The strategy didn’t work as planned — Trout singled, and Pujols walked — but Smith wiggled free by getting Johnny Giavotella to ground into a double play.
His previous tendency was to save his closer (his best reliever, in a de facto sense) for the ninth inning.
A year ago, Rodney entered only two games with the lead prior to the ninth. The last time was July 20 at Anaheim, when he didn’t realize it was the eighth. He shot his imaginary arrow when the inning ended.
The Angels rallied to beat Rodney in the ninth; his third and last blown save of the season in 51 chances. Does using Smith in the eighth inning Friday mean McClendon will now use his best reliever when most needed?
“Last year,” McClendon said, “our bullpen was lock down in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. We’ve had some struggles this year. And I loved the matchup of Carson Smith against Trout.”
So … not a philosophical shift per se, but it might not be the last time it happens.
The Mariners, collectively, are holding their breath to see whether James Paxton’s first tentative throwing workout aggravates the strained tendon in the middle finger of his left hand.
McClendon said Paxton threw Friday at Safeco Field for about five minutes at a distance of 15-20 feet. It was Paxton’s first throws since he suffered the injury May 28 in the fifth inning against Cleveland.
“The next thing is to make sure he has no pain,” McClendon said. “With those tendons, if he feels it playing catch, you’ve got to back off him.”
Even under a best-case scenario, Paxton is unlikely to rejoin the rotation before early August. A more likely timetable projects a return in late August or early September.
Paxton was 3-3 with a 3.70 ERA in 10 starts prior to the injury.
Veteran outfielder Franklin Gutierrez served as a late defensive replacement Friday in right field, which marked his first time in that position since 2013.
Gutierrez played primarily left field earlier this season at Triple-A Tacoma, although he also spent one game in center field.
McClendon said Gutierrez “feels comfortable” in either corner role but termed it “highly unlikely” that he will see time in center field.
It was three years ago Sunday — June 28, 2012 — that Felix Hernandez tied what was then a career high by striking out 13 in a 1-0 victory over Boston at Safeco Field.
The Mariners won when John Jaso delivered a pinch-hit, walk-off single with one out in the ninth inning against Red Sox reliever Scott Atchison. Casper Wells scored from second base.
Hernandez broke his personal strikeout record by getting 15 in seven innings in a 5-0 victory at Tampa Bay on June 8, 2014.
Center fielder Austin Jackson didn’t play Saturday because he is 1 for 13 in his career against Angels right-hander Garrett Richards. Instead, Dustin Ackley started in center. He is 4 for 21 against Richards. … Nelson Cruz leads the American League with 19 go-ahead RBIs. His RBI double Friday broke a 1-1 tie. … Cruz’s 71 career RBIs against the Angels are his highest total against any opponent. … Robinson Cano entered Saturday with a .364 average in his previous 64 games against the Angels (but went 0 for 3). He also had 10 homers and 34 RBIs in that span.
The Mariners and Angels conclude their three-game series at 12:35 p.m. Sunday at Angel Stadium. Right-hander Felix Hernandez (10-4, 3.24 ERA) will face Los Angeles lefty Hector Santiago (4-4, 2.68)