Mike Zunino is quite strong.
Nelson Cruz is quite tough.
And Felix Hernandez has quite a curveball.
Despite a shaky start – again – against the Chicago White Sox, the Seattle Mariners rallied behind those three players and a lockdown bullpen for a 4-3 win at Guaranteed Rate Field on Wednesday.
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Cruz had two game-tying singles, despite appearing to tweak something on a check swing.
And Zunino had the at-bat of the game when he turned an 0-2 count into a 3-2 one, battled for nine pitches and then sent a home run the opposite way over the right-field wall for the Mariners’ go-ahead run in the sixth inning.
And how about Edwin Diaz? He struck out two of the three batters he faced for his 10th save in 10 opportunities.
Diaz has pitched 12 1/3 innings in relief so far and he’s allowed four hits and one run with 20 strikeouts.
His second strikeout was the 200th of his young career, which makes him the fifth-fastest in major league history to reach 200 strikeouts, doing so in 130 innings (Craig Kimbrel did it in 117 2/3 innings, Kenley Jansen in 119 2/3 innings, Aroldis Chapman in 123 1/3 innings and Dellin Betances in 129 innings.
“I mean you get to the seventh and you got a great bullpen that’s 7-8-9,” Hernandez said. “You do that enough that’s – that’s how you win games and make the playoffs.”
The Mariners improved to 13-10 after taking two of three games from the White Sox.
And their bullpen retired nine consecutive batters behind James Pazos, Juan Nicasio and Diaz.
“Our bullpen has really been the MVP here the past couple of games,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters afterward. “Our bullpen has been outstanding.”
Hernandez then cruised through the bottom half of the sixth after some shaky innings earlier, getting Omar Narvaez to chase a curveball out of the zone to complete his second six-inning outing of his six starts this year.
The hardest outs for the Mariners this series? The first ones.
The White Sox scored the first two runs of the game thanks to their work on the first two pitches of the game.
Yoan Moncada, the White Sox’s prized return in a trade that sent ace Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox, sent Hernandez’s first pitch of the game for a solo home run.
His second pitch landed over the wall, too. Yolmer Sanchez hit a double and then scored on Tim Anderson’s flare single to left field.
“Really? It’s going to happen,” Hernandez said. “They were just swinging. They came out swinging.”
As they had done all series. It came one day after Chicago led off with consecutive hits against Marco Gonzales on Tuesday and seven consecutive hits against Mike Leake on Monday.
The Mariners caught a break, though, when the White Sox’s most feared hitter, Jose Abreu, left after the third inning because of flu-like symptoms.
Cruz’s check swing on a pitch seemed to affect something in the third inning. He stepped out of the box while he clenched his teeth and tried to stretch his legs. Mariners trainer Rob Nodine and manager Scott Servais soon after rushed out of the dugout to check on him.
As Cruz does, he eventually shrugged them off and stepped back into the box.
Any way he was leaving the game?
“No,” Cruz said.
Next pitch? Cruz singled up the middle to score Daniel Vogelbach to tie the game, 3-3.
“As Nellie does,” Servais said.
Cruz tied the game earlier, too, when he slapped a single to right field in the third inning. Just after Jean Segura’s single scored the Mariners’ first run. He finished 3-for-5 with the two singles and a double (which would have scored a run had Segura not been picked off at second base).
And it’s no secret that Cruz hasn’t been 100 percent healthy. Cruz dealt with a quad injury just about all of spring training and then he turned his ankle on a dugout step in the second game of the season.
He was asked how much that’s affecting his swing.
“Maybe a little bit,” Cruz said. “But it feels like I’m getting better every day.”
Here’s the three takeaways:
Zunino power: Let’s just break down that big at-bat in the sixth inning. Because it was pretty.
Zunino took a first strike – something he has been doing often since returning from his oblique strain and something he didn’t do so often before this year. But he said he wants to see more pitches and he gets his timing down.
He then got down 0-2 before fouling off James Shields’ 67-mph curveball (just after he saw an 83-mph cutter). Zunino then laid off two balls out of the zone, fouled off two others, battled to a full count and then got an 89-mph fastball higher than Shields probably wanted to throw it on the outer half of the plate on the ninth pitch of the at-bat.
Zunino is really strong. He sent it the other way for a solo home run to give the Mariners the 4-3 lead.
That was his second home run in three games.
#Mariners @ #WhiteSox— Ballpark Videos (@BallparkVids) April 25, 2018
Mike Zunino clubs a solo home run to right, his second of the season, giving the Mariners a 4-3 lead in the 6th inning (00:51)
MLB Gameday: https://t.co/dPfyAFN6gt pic.twitter.com/cc46zDmxv0
“Obviously a big home run to the opposite field – he has that kind of power,” Servais said. “Z is starting to come around and starting to feel more comfortable at the plate.”
Zunino has still struck out eight times in 20 at-bats. But it appears he might have found some of the timing he was missing after sitting the first 18 games of the season. Zunino was 2-for-4 with a double to go with the home run and he was 4-for-11 this series.
And it came after he impacted the game in all kinds of ways defensively on Tuesday.
Trouble with the curve: James Shields and Felix Hernandez had very different curveballs.
Shields threw some of his in the 66-mph range. Hernandez’s was more around 80 mph.
Hernandez pitched six innings, allowing seven hits and three runs with six strikeouts. It is the second time in his six starts he’s pitched at least six innings.
And he had his curveball working. Of his six strikeouts, Hernandez got three of them via the curve, ending the sixth inning with Omar Navaez chasing one out of the strike zone – the same thing he did to Adam Engel in the fourth inning.
“Felix did exactly what we needed out of him today,” Servais said. “We needed six innings and he did it.”
King Felix, Filthy 79mph Curveball. pic.twitter.com/HRetPNVeoF— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 25, 2018
Hernandez threw 96 pitches, 63 for strikes.
“After the first inning I was able to make better pitches,” Hernandez said. “Had a good curveball, a good sinker and we go from there.”
Feast or famine: The Mariners are now 11-3 this season when they’ve scored at least four runs.
They are 2-7 when they score fewer than that.
But they have won or tied seven of the eight series they have played, with the only losing one coming at home against the Houston Astros, when they won the first game and lost the next three.
The Mariners did score four runs in the first game of this series, but the White Sox scored 10.
Then they scored one run on Tuesday, but won the game, 1-0.
And six of the Mariners’ 10 losses have come when they allow seven runs or more – and they’ve allowed nine runs or more in four of those losses.
They now prepare for a four-game road series against the Cleveland Indians, who won 102 games last year (and the Mariners took two of three games against them in the season-opening series).
“It wasn’t pretty. Wasn’t a ton of offense,” Servais said. “We had some chances to score more runs today and we weren’t able to get it done but the key this series was our bullpen. Pitching with Marco and Felix was great, but the bullpen locking it down was huge for us.”
Play of the game: The Mike Zunino oppo-shot. Sixth inning and he powered it over the right-field wall for the go-ahead home run – his second in as many games.
And earlier in the game Zunino faced an 0-2 count against White Sox starter James Shields and lunged at a low knuckle-curveball down the left-field line for a double. He finished 2-for-4.
Top pitcher: After a shaky start, Felix Hernandez found a groove. But hard not to go with “Sugar” – Edwin Diaz. He’s been lockdown – 10 saves in 10 opportunities and he now has 20 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings pitched.
Diaz is the fifth-fastest player to reach 200 career strikeouts, based off of innings pitched, in major-league history.
Top hitter: Flip a coin between Nelson Cruz and Mike Zunino, though tough days for Kyle Seager, Mitch Haniger and Ben Gamel, who combined to leave 12 runners on base and go 0-for-11 (though Seager walked twice).
Cruz was 3-for-5, despite the ankle flare-up, with a double and two two-out RBI singles.
Zunino was 2-for-4 with a double and the go-ahead home run in the sixth inning.
Quotable: James Pazos had his best outing of the season when he tossed 2 2/3 scoreless innings against the Rangers on Sunday.
Then the left-hander followed it up with a 1-2-3 frame in the seventh inning on Wednesday to bridge the way to Juan Nicasio and Edwin Diaz.
Pazos has pitched six scoreless innings over his past six appearances since allowing a run in each of his first two appearances of the season. \
“Really happy with how Pazos’ pitches have come together the past couple of weeks,” Servais said. “He was a little shaky coming out of spring training and the first couple of outings of the season. But really happy with where he’s at. The confidence is back and the life on the fastball and he’s throwing strikes.”