Early in a game of self-evident playoff implications, the Seattle Mariners put two runners on base with one out Sunday for cleanup hitter Kendrys Morales.
The Oakland A’s had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning, but Morales — the Mariners’ top RBI producer last season — surely was capable of driving in Austin Jackson from third with a fly ball in the home half.
But Morales didn’t hit a fly ball. He hit a grounder that shortstop Jed Lowrie converted into an inning-ending double play.
The Mariners had runners in scoring position five times in six innings against A’s starter Jon Lester, and five times they allowed Lester to escape.
“We had a lot of opportunities, that’s the good part,” manager Lloyd McClendon said of 4-0 defeat that endangered his team’s wild-card chances. “The bad part is, we didn’t drive anybody in.”
The absence of punch wasn’t a mystery. When the Mariners needed a fly ball to tie the score in the first, Morales responded by hitting into a double play. When they needed a two-out hit in the third ining to drive home Chris Denorfia from third base, Corey Hart grounded out to first.
When the Mariners faced a similar situation in the fifth — two outs, tying run on second — Morales struck out. Still another chance was wasted in the seventh, when pinch hitters Endy Chavez and Logan Morrison led off with base hits off reliever Dan Otero, whose wild pitch seemed to auger a breakthrough inning.
But Otero got two quick outs and then intentionally walked Robinson Cano, which put the threat into the hands of Morales. He then hit the fly ball the Mariners wished he had hit in the first inning.
By the time the A’s pushed two more runs across the plate in the eighth, Safeco Field had the vibe of a place that likely won’t be home to another meaningful game until the 2015 opener. If the Mariners don’t turn things around on an 11-game road trip that begins Monday night against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, their season-ending weekend against the Angels will be moot.
“We lost two out of three, I’m not happy,” McClendon said. “So we’ll get on a plane, go to Anaheim and try to take three out of four against them.”
That’s not happening if McClendon puts together a lineup as tepid as the one that took the field Sunday. Here was a game the Mariners desperately needed to win after the fiasco Saturday night when closer Fernando Rodney was required to pitch in a non-save situation, and the batting order resembled that of a split-squad spring training game.
It had Denorfia (.209) batting second, Morales (.221) batting cleanup, Hart (.197) batting fifth and Justin Smoak (.201) batting seventh. I’m leaving No. 9 hitter Mike Zunino out of this discussion, even though the catcher’s batting average has dropped to .195. Zunino compensates with power and solid defense at a position predicated on defense.
Besides, it’s certain that Zunino will return to the Mariners next season. Denorfia, Morales and Hart won’t be back, and nobody will be surprised if the Mariners finally give up on their four-year long project of trying to turn Smoak into an everyday player.
In the meantime, McClendon is focusing on the short-term challenge of trying to earn a playoff bid with guys who aren’t part of the long-term future at Safeco Field, which has not been a fit for his team.
The 2-4 homestand did nothing to change those perceptions.
“I’ve always believed you don’t argue for your limitations,” McClendon said. “We have not been good at home and this was not a good homestand. What the hell are you gonna do? We’ve got to go on the road and try to win.
“We haven’t been good, but the good part is, we’re going on the road, where we’ve been real good. You want to talk about improbable, that’s as improbable as you can get.”
As he was winding up his remarks in the postgame interview room, McClendon offered a smile that suggested the rest of us were overreacting to the back-to-back games that revived the slumping A’s while deflating the Mariners.
“We’ll be OK, guys,” McClendon said. “I promise. Trust me.”
Gotcha, skip. But that’s one terrible lineup you wrote Sunday, and the suspicion we won’t see half of it in 2015 is not an overreaction.