That uphill climb for the Mariners to reach postseason for the first time in 15 years just got a lot steeper — much to the delight of a loudly partisan Toronto crowd Monday night at Safeco Field.
The Mariners did avoid the indignity of a no-hitter and dialed up a little late excitement, but this was a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays that came in front of a overwhelmingly Toronto-blue crowd of 34,809.
"It was different," Mariners starter Taijuan Walker said. "We’re at home, but it felt like an away game."
So started what is likely the biggest series at Safeco in more than a decade.
The Mariners are now three games behind Toronto and Baltimore in the race for one of the American League’s two wild-card berths. A victory would have closed the gap on the Blue Jays to one game.
There are just 12 games remaining.
"Got to keep playing," manager Scott Servais said. "That’s what the schedule says. That’s what we’ve done all along…We know what’s ahead of us. We’re not going to back away from it."
Again, it could have been worse.
Toronto starter Marco Estrada, who is battling a herniated disk, had been hit hard in three of his four previous starts. Not on Monday. Estrada retired the first 11 Mariners before issuing two two-out walks in the fourth inning.
"Marco stepped up," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "That reminded me of the playoff game against Kansas City last year."
The Mariners didn’t get their first hit until Robinson Cano’s leadoff single in the seventh inning on a hard grounder back through the box and into center field.
"Same guy we always see," Cano said. "Fastball, change-up and breaking balls. We were chasing and swinging at (pitches) out of the zone. But he was pitching. He was putting the ball wherever he wanted."
Cano’s single was the Mariners’ only hit until two outs in the ninth inning, when Adam Lind singled against Toronto closer Roberto Orsuna before Leonys Martin hit a two-run homer.
Toronto got a a two-run homer from Edwin Encarnacion in the third inning against Walker, but the winning run proved to be Kevin Pillar’s two-out RBI single in the fourth inning.
Estrada (9-9) exited after starting the eighth inning with a four-pitch walk to Martin. Estrada struck out seven and walked three in a 97-pitch performance.
The Mariners then made it interesting.
Reliever Jason Grilli immediately brought the tying run to the plate with a four-pitch walk to pinch-hitter Ben Gamel.
Grilli struck out Ketel Marte on a 3-2 fastball that might have been off the plate. Nori Aoki flied out, but another walk, to Seth Smith, loaded the bases for Cano.
Toronto replaced Grilli with Orsuna, who retired Cano on a fly to deep right. It sent Ezequiel Carrera to the warning track, but it was a routine catch.
"It was low (off the bat)," Cano said. "I didn’t think it had a chance. It was a line drive, and I knew he was playing `no doubles.’ I was hoping, but it ended up being the third out."
Orsuna then survived two-out trouble in the ninth for his 34th save.
Walker (6-11) pitched a three-hit shutout against the Angels in his previous start. This time, he gave up three runs and five hits in 5 1/3 innings before departing with runners at first and second after two walks.
"The whole game," he said, "I was amped up a little bit. Everything felt just a little bit off. It wasn’t my best."
In came Drew Storen, who started the season in Toronto before coming to the Mariners in a July 25 trade for reliever Joaquin Benoit. Storen stranded both runners by striking out two hitters.
By the sixth inning, the possibility of a no-hitter began to grow. Aoki tried to end it with a two-strike bunt, but the ball rolled foul for a strikeout.
An inning later, Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson, the reigning Most Valuable Player, was ejected by umpire Chris Conroy for arguing a called third strike from Storen.
The PitchF/x computer indicated the ball was low, but Donaldson’s vehement reaction pretty much sealed his fate.
Walker opened the game by striking out the first two hitters before getting hit in the left biceps by an Encarnacion line drive. The ball ricocheted into right-center field for a single.
"It got me for a second," Walker said, "but after that, I was fine. It was coming in hot."
A four-pitch walk to Jose Bautista moved Encarnacion to second, but Walker stranded both runners when Russell Martin flied out to center.
Pillar opened the Toronto third inning with a squib single when Lind couldn’t dig out a low throw from Walker. Pillar stole second.
Walker retired the next two hitters, but Encarnacion crushed an 0-1 change-up for a no-doubt homer to left. It was No. 41 for Encarnacion, and the Blue Jays led 2-0.
"I went back and looked at it," Walker said. "It wasn’t a bad pitch, but he’s really strong guy. It was down and in, and that’s kind of where he likes it. I’ve just got to get that a little bit lower.
"It wasn’t a bad pitch, but it also wasn’t a good pitch either."
Troy Tulowitzki started the Toronto fourth with a double off the center-field wall and went to third on Carrera’s sacrifice. Walker struck out Melvin Upton, but Pillar punched an 0-2 fastball to right for an RBI single.
PLAY OF THE GAME: The Mariners got the tying run to the plate with two outs in the fourth inning after Toronto started Marco Estrada issued successive walks while pitching with a 3-0 lead.
Kyle Seager then sent a sinking liner into center that initially looked like an RBI single — until Kevin Pillar charged in and made a sliding catch.
PLUS: Reliever Drew Storen faced four of his former Toronto teammates and struck out three of them…reliever Evan Scribner pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and has not allowed a run in 7 1/3 innings over six appearances since being activated from the 60-day disabled list.
MINUS: The Blue Jays stole four bases and, in each case, catcher Mike Zunino didn’t have much of a chance…Zunino struck out in each of his at-bats and now has 51 strikeouts in 136 at-bats.
STAT PACK: Leonys Martin’s homer was his 15th of the season. The Mariners have seven players with 15 or more homers for only the second time in franchise history. They also did it in 1997.
QUOTABLE: "I’ll tell you what," Toronto manager John Gibbons said, "these Western Canadian fans are something special. Hard-nosed, and they love you. I’ve never seen anything like it.
"They’re special out here. They’re hard-working people. They’re down to earth, and they love us — good, bad or ugly. It’s kind of cool."
SHORT HOPS: The Mariners are 1-3 on their current six-game homestand after capping an eight-game winning streak with a 6-0 road trip through Oakland and Anaheim…the Mariners have a 2.47 ERA over 17 games in September…Toronto second baseman Devon Travis has a 16-game hitting streak after going 2-for-5…Toronto DH Jose Bautista walked three times in four plate appearances has reached base safely at least once in 27 straight games.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners