Through the season’s first two months, the Seattle Mariners have submitted surprisingly few performances with which to reasonably quibble.
They entered Sunday in first place in the American League West. They’ve come from behind in 13 of their victories. They’ve hit three walk-off home runs. They’ve yet to lose a road series.
Yet here they were at Safeco Field, unable for the third consecutive day to accomplish what seemed one of the simpler tasks in baseball this season.
They could not beat the Minnesota Twins — the struggling, sputtering, worst-record-in-the-AL Twins.
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Those Twins hammered Seattle starter Taijuan Walker for three home runs in the first four innings, chasing him before the end of the fifth in a 5-4, sweep-clinching victory before a crowd of 33,748.
Franklin Gutierrez’s two-out, two-run homer off Twins closer Kevin Jepsen in the ninth gave the Mariners a chance, but pinch hitter Dae-Ho Lee struck out.
“We’ve got to get back to where we were — try to score early, so that way you get more chances for the starting pitcher to pitch more comfortable,” said Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano. “It’s hard to pitch when you’re losing or in a tight, close game. We’ve got to go back and try to score early, not wait until the last two, three innings.”
The Mariners (28-21) fell to 10-14 at home this season, a curious mark for a team that entered Sunday within a half-game of the best record in the A.L. They have been swept in three home series.
“I can’t put my finger on one particular thing,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “We just didn’t play well in those series, and we’ll get back at it (Monday). We’ve got a good clubhouse and we’ve got a good team. We’ve got a couple guys that are out right now — that certainly affects things — but gives an opportunity for other players to step up, and that’s what you’ve got to do.
“It takes more than 25 guys to get deep in the season and play meaningful games. That’s where we’re going to be, no doubt in my mind. Along the way, we’re going to have a few bumps in the road. We have a bump in the road right now. We’ll be OK.”
The Mariners did score, and lead, in each of the first two innings. Cano hit a line drive over the right field fence in the first, his team-best 15th home run of the season. And Kyle Seager scored on a wild pitch in the second after leading off with a double.
But the Twins (15-34) got on the board with Robbie Grossman’s solo homer to right-center in the top of the second, then added back-to-back home runs by Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano to start the fourth. Minnesota tacked on another run on catcher Juan Centeno’s two-out, RBI double later that inning.
Walker was pulled with one out in the fifth after he walked Sano to load the bases. The Twins scored their fifth run on a fielder’s-choice groundout by Grossman against reliever Vidal Nuno.
Walker said Mauer and Sano each homered against off-speed pitches — “should have been fastball and wasn’t,” he said — and that he felt he went away from his fastball too often.
“I thought Taijuan’s stuff was just OK,” Servais said. “He was trying to compete, trying to find it, but he made some mistakes and they got him.”
Nuno helped spare Seattle’s bullpen by pitching 2 2/3 mostly clean innings of relief, striking out four batters and allowing one hit. Steve Johnson and Joel Peralta each worked a scoreless inning.
But the damage was done against Walker, who was not the only Mariners starter to struggle this weekend against the league’s worst team. Felix Hernandez yielded six runs in six innings Friday. Wade Miley allowed five runs in four innings Saturday.
“Our guys have struggled a little bit. It’s going to happen,” Servais said. “Unfortunately, it all happened at the same time this series.”
Seattle didn’t hit much against Twins starter Ricky Nolasco, who struck out seven batters in six innings to earn his second victory of the season.
Cano had his homer and a single. Seager had his double. That was it against Nolasco, though Gutierrez’s homer in the ninth — Adam Lind had just singled with two outs and nobody on — made it interesting.
But the Twins left Seattle with their first road sweep of the season. Oddly, Safeco seems a fine place for visitors to make that happen.
“One of those series,” Servais said. “They beat us.”
Oh, and the Mariners are now a half-game behind Texas.
PLAY OF THE GAME: It was technically two plays, but Mauer and Sano hitting back-to-back homers to lead off the fourth inning served as the turning point. The Mariners led, 2-1, until those blasts put the Twins ahead for good.
PLUS: The Mariners at least mounted a comeback behind Gutierrez’s two-out homer in the ninth, and Cano went 2 for 4. … Seattle’s bullpen (Nuno, Johnson and Peralta) combined to pitch 4 2/3 scoreless innings and allowed one hit with five strikeouts.
MINUS: The Twins have won 15 games, and 20 percent came this weekend at Safeco Field. … Walker finished the month of May with an 0-5 record and 4.91 earned-run average in six starts.
STAT PACK: Cano has reached base safely in 27 consecutive games, a streak that dates to April 30. He’s hitting .345 with 21 runs, seven homers and 20 RBIs in that stretch. … Nuno has allowed one run in his last 18 appearances (15 2/3 innings).
QUOTABLE: “Not a whole lot you can say about it, other than we got beat. The Twins played well.” — Servais, offering a summary of the weekend.