It was far from the Mariners’ worst loss of the season, but Tuesday’s 3-1 stumble against the Texas Rangers came at a point when they simply can’t afford any missteps.
Provided an opportunity to gain ground in the American League wild-card race, the Mariners squandered the chance in large part because of yet another crushing baserunning mistake.
They then saw Nick Vincent, their most reliable reliever for much of the season, continue his late-season fade by giving up two runs in decisive eighth inning.
The loss dropped the Mariners to 74-77 and kept them four games behind Minnesota in the race for the final wild-card berth with just 11 games remaining.
"A disappointing night, obviously," manager Scott Servais said. "We had a chance to gain ground in this race, and you lose another day. You don’t lose ground, but you lose a day. That’s a big thing right now."
The Twins lost earlier in the night to the Yankees in New York and have lost four of their last five overall. But they also still have seven games remaining with Detroit, which has just 11 victories in its last 43 games.
For the Mariners, this was a breakdown in two acts.
Act One: It was 1-1 in the seventh inning when they Mariners had runners at first and third with one out. Servais called for a safety squeeze, but Guillermo Heredia pulled back on a down-and-away curve from Rangers reliever Tony Barnette.
"He did the right thing," Servais said. "He didn’t get a strike."
But Yonder Alonso charged too far off third base and found himself in no-man’s land. Catcher Robinson Chirinos threw down to third baseman Drew Robinson, who applied the tag for an easy out.
"Unfortunate," Alonso said. "A tough pitch, and I couldn’t get back. I thought I read it very well. I took a couple of steps too aggressive, and it didn’t work out."
Heredia followed with a single that moved Mike Zunino to second base. That capped an otherwise impressive 10-pitch at-bat that included four two-strike fouls, but the Mariners came up empty when Ben Gamel flied out to left.
Act Two: When the Rangers sent up Carlos Gomez as a pinch-hitter to start the eighth inning, the Mariners countered by replacing Marc Rzepczynski with Vincent to get a right-on-right matchup.
"It was the right spot for him in the game," Servais said. "That’s been his spot all year."
It didn’t work.
Gomez punched a double into the right-field corner. After Will Middlebrooks entered the game as a pinch-runner, Delino DeShields put down a perfect bunt to the left side and, instead of getting a sacrifice, ended up with a single.
That put runners at first and third.
Shin-Soo Choo’s drive to deep right easily produced the go-ahead run.
DeShields then stole second base by sliding around the tag by shortstop Jean Segura and scored on Elvis Andrus’ single through the left side.
"It’s a game of inches," Vincent said. "You make a bad pitch, miss by two inches, they hit it. You make a good pitch, and it lands two inches fair, and it leads to (the winning run)."
The Rangers led 3-1, which is how it ended. Three Texas relievers bridged the final six outs with Alex Claudio getting his ninth save.
The loss meant the Mariners wasted a fine effort by Mike Leake, who gave up one run in 6 2/3 innings before Servais opted not to let him face Rougned Odor with nobody on base.
Servais summoned Rzepczynski for a left-on-left matchup, and Odor grounded out to second.
Texas starter Martin Perez also got a no-decision in limiting the Mariners to one run in 6 1/3 innings before Texas manager Jeff Banister went to his bullpen with nobody on base.
***An air-tight Leake: Leake settled for a no-decision despite delivering his fourth straight strong start since arriving in an Aug. 30 trade from St. Louis for minor-league infielder Rayder Ascanio.
Leake gave up one run and six hits in 6 2/3 innings. His four-game totals: six earned runs in 25 1/3 innings for a 2.13 ERA. He has not given up more than two runs in any of his four starts.
***Vincent’s slide continues: So reliable for five months, Vincent continued his September collapse by allowing two runs and three hits in the eighth inning after inheriting a 1-1 to start the inning.
That makes eight runs and 11 hits over five innings in his last six outings. An ERA that sparkled at 1.87 after a scoreless inning on Sept. 3 against Oakland is now up a full run to 2.87.
"They’ve been getting runs," Vincent said. "That’s the difference. The last two weeks, I haven’t been as crisp as usual. But that’s part of baseball. You’re going to go through your ups and downs."
***Fine leather: Prior to the Aug. 6 trade that brought Alonso from Oakland, first baseman Danny Valencia rated as a legitimate long-shot candidate to win a Gold Glove for defensive excellence.
Getting Alonso turned Valencia into a part-time player, which pretty much spiked his award chances. Even so, Valencia provided a forget-me-not with a fine play that ended the sixth inning.
It was 1-1 when the Rangers had runners at first and third with two outs when Nomar Mazara scalded a grounder toward the 3-4 gap. Valencia smoothly made the play and waved off Leake in beating Mazara to the base for the final out.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners