The bullpen has had more success lately. The defense has committed less errors lately. The Seattle Mariners have looked better in the field than they did in the darkest stretches of this lost season.
But, Friday night at T-Mobile Park, they fell right back into the disappointingly familiar habits that have cost them so many games this season. They entered the top of the ninth inning knotted with Tampa Bay. They entered the bottom of the ninth trailing by three runs, and ultimately dropped a 5-3 loss.
Anthony Bass, who has been reliable at the back end of Seattle’s bullpen the past month, allowed a leadoff single to pinch hitter Eric Sogard in the ninth before walking Kevin Kiermaier. Michael Brosseau set down a successful sacrifice bunt to move both runners up, and the Mariners opted to intentionally walk Willy Adames to load the bases with two outs.
Pinch hitter Ji-Main Choi then worked a full count before watching a fastball sink just below the strike zone. He trotted to first base, and Sogard trotted home, giving the Rays the decisive run.
“Anthony’s been really good for an extended time,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They laid off some tough pitches. They had some good at-bats. Certainly the leadoff single, the walk to Kiermaier hurt. The at-bat to Choi, I thought he executed pretty well on some back-foot sliders. You’ve got to give Choi credit, he laid off them. Most guys in that situation with the bases loaded don’t have enough discipline.”
“He stayed disciplined and worked the count and found himself on base,” Bass said.
But, that wasn’t it. The next at-bat, Tommy Pham hit a soft chopper to short, and J.P. Crawford couldn’t handle it on the bounce, recording an error and allowing Kiermair to score a second run. The third run scored moments later, when Austin Meadows hit another grounder at Crawford. This one he fielded cleanly enough, but only had time to step on second base for the second out. His throw to first to try to double up the Rays was late, and Adames scooted across to make it 5-2.
“They didn’t hit the ball hard off him, but that little chopper to J.P., and then another double-play ball that was a tough one in between there, tough to turn,” Servais said. “Not a lot going his way tonight, but Anthony’s been throwing the ball really, really good.”
The Mariners only got out of the disastrous inning when Avisail Garcia hit a tapper in front of the plate, kicked it out of play running down the base line, and was called out for interference.
“I put myself in that situation,” Bass said. “It’s never easy when you have runners on base in scoring position, but you’ve got to make pitches, especially that late in the game. I just didn’t do that tonight.”
Rookie Ryan Court hit his first major league home run with one out in the bottom of the inning to bring the Mariners within two runs.
“I knew I hit it good,” Court said. “I was busting out of the box trying to get on two, maybe three. It went over. It felt good. It was exciting because I thought we were back in the game, and that was a big thing. I just want to win.”
So did Mariners starter Marco Gonzales.
He walked back to the dugout visibly frustrated in the seventh inning — but the scowl and the muttering to himself had nothing to do with pitching. He just didn’t want to leave a game while on a roll, with what seemed like plenty of juice still left in his arm.
“I tried to fight,” Gonzales said, after Servais pulled him shortly after a sharp comebacker drilled him in the upper left calf. “Just with where were at in the game, I wanted to stay in. I didn’t see a reason to come out. But, with my pitch count getting high, Skip just said he was making an executive decision and it was best to go to the ‘pen.”
In one of his best starts of the season, the Gonzales matched a career-high with nine strikeouts across 6 1/3 quality innings. The Rays scattered two earned runs in the second and third innings off of him, and connected for seven hits, but he was quick to shut down any significant threats.
Matt Duffy doubled with one out in the second, and advanced on Kiermaier’s single. Gonzales tried to initiate a double play on Brosseau’s soft grounder the next at-bat, but could only catch Kiermaier at second, allowing Duffy to scratch across the game’s first run. Gonzales avoided further damage, stranding two runners by striking out Travis d’Arnaud two batters later.
Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows opened the third with back-to-back singles, and Pham eventually crossed on a fielder’s choice to give Tampa Bay an early two-run edge.
But, that was all the Rays got out of Gonzales.
“He got in a nice groove,” Servais said. “He didn’t have great command early. But, he got it going, like Marco can do, and gave us a great chance, and kept them right there in the ballgame.”
With 95 pitches already on his arm, Gonzales returned for what was likely his final inning anyway in the seventh. He just didn’t get to finish it. Adames hit the sharp, comeback grounder that struck Gonzales, and though Gonzales made the play, coolly tossing Adames out at first, but Servais and trainer Rob Nodine quickly scrambled out of the dugout to check on him.
“I could feel it,” Gonzales said. “It was a little tight. But, with the adrenaline you have going, it’s not a factor.”
After several moments of conversation on the mound, during which Gonzales was pleading his case to remain in the game, his infielders tapped him on the back, and he reluctantly handed the ball over to Servais, walking off the field frowning. He said it was “just a bruise,” and doesn’t expect to need any extensive treatment.
“He said, ‘Give me a few minutes, let the sting go away.’ But, that did get him pretty solid,” Servais said. “I just thought at that point, we’ll go to the ‘pen.”
Many of the fans sitting behind Seattle’s first base dugout rose to their feet, and Gonzales subtly acknowledged, giving a slight cap tip, and clapping his hand to his glove.
For the first time since May 7 in New York, Gonzales, for better or worse, didn’t record a decision. He’d either won or lost each of his previous 15 starts leading up to Friday.
Though he didn’t earn a win, the Mariners did do just enough to ensure he didn’t lose either.
Trailing by the two runs in the third, Mallex Smith walked with one out, and moved up to second on a fielder’s choice. He then ripped around third on Domingo Santana’s single to shallow left, and beat the throw home for Seattle’s first run. Tom Murphy then reached on a fielding error to lead off the fourth, and eventually tied the game on Court’s RBI single.
“Marco did exactly what we needed him to do tonight,” Servais said. “Solid outing. ... We had some chances with runners in scoring position. Didn’t get a lot of big hits early. That’s a tough team.
“Their bullpen is one of the better ones in the league. All different looks. They all do it a little bit differently. So, when you get in a bullpen game like that, you’ve got your work cut out for you.”