Michael Saunders made sure everyone could breathe a little easier.
After what’s transpired on this road trip and for much of the season, a four-run lead far was from safe, but it was certainly better than the alternative - a two-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth.
Saunders hit his second home run of the game – a two-run blast – in the top of the ninth inning to give the Mariners’ wounded psyche some much-needed reinforcement and Danny Farquhar worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning to secure an 8-4 win over the Orioles on Saturday at Camden Yards.
So that home run from Saunders, it was kind of big for the Mariners’ mindset?
“Huge, bigger than big, just huge,” acting manager Robby Thompson said.
Farquhar actually came on the in the eighth inning to pitch the Mariners out of a minor jam with two outs. With runners on first and second, the ultra-dangerous Adam Jones at the plate and the Mariners hanging on to a 6-4 lead, Farquhar got him to pop out to center to end the threat.
In the top of the ninth, Justin Smoak reached base for the fifth time in the night, doubling to right off Darren O’Day. With a 1-2 count, Saunders stayed on a sinker and drove it over the wall in left field.
“It was awesome,” Smoak said. “I was excited he hit it over the fence so I didn’t have to run hard to home plate. We knew going into the top of the ninth, we needed to get at least one more and to get two there, it was big for us.”
It was big for Farquhar, who was going to pitch the ninth in a situation he hadn’t been in as a big leaguer.
“I’m sure it took some pressure off Farquhar,” said Saunders, who drove in five runs on the night.
“Thank God Saunders hit that two-run homer in the ninth,” Farquhar said. “That definitely made it significantly easier.”
Nothing about the ninth inning has been easy for the Mariners bullpen for much of this season, but Farquhar made it look that way. The diminutive right-hander with the big fastball struck out Matt Wieters and Henry Urrutia and got Jones to line out to end the game. Because of the out in the eighth, Farquhar was credited with his first big league save. It came complete with the customary beer shower postgame.
“It was a big deal to me,” Farquhar said of his save. “I was really excited about the beer shower. I’ve done a ton of them in the three months I’ve been here. I just wanted to get a stupid beer shower. And I got it. It was a lot of fun.”
For a good chunk of the season, hitting wasn’t much fun for Saunders. The lanky Canadian outfielder has as much the talent and athleticism as anyone on the team. After a solid start was sidetracked by a stint on the disabled list, Saunders sunk into a cavernous slump at the plate. He hit a combined .203 for May and June with 53 strikeouts. There was talk he would be sent to Triple A to figure it out. Instead, he had to do it at the big league level.
“I know I’ve dug myself quite a hole early in the season,” he said. “But I feel like I’ve been working myself out of it.”
He’s found a comfort level at the plate, cutting down on the pre-swing movement with his hands.
“Something wasn’t working for me and I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “It’s a game where you have to adapt to. I was missing balls that I should be driving and that was the tell-tale sign. I was trying to make it a little simpler and get back to basics. It kind of happened naturally.”
On Saturday, he got a little help from Buck Showalter without the Orioles manager realizing it.
Saunders looked out of sorts in his first two at-bats against Baltimore starter Scott Feldman, striking out swinging twice on high fastballs.
The Mariners had just taken a 2-1 lead on Feldman on Michael Morse’s two-out RBI single. Justin Smoak followed with a single and Showalter had seen enough, he pulled Feldman and brought in lefty T.J. McFarland to face Saunders.
“Yes, surprisingly I was kind of excited to see the lefty in that situation and get (Feldman) out of there because he had my number tonight,” Saunders said.
It was evident when Saunders yanked a 2-2 slider over the wall in right field for a three-run homer to push the lead to 5-1.
The 5-1 lead was enough for starter Erasmo Ramirez, who had his best outing since being called up.
Ramirez worked six innings giving up four runs on four hits with no walks and six strikeouts. Over the six innings, he gave up just two runs – solo homers to Manny Machado and Nick Markakis. In the seventh, he gave up a double and a single. Both runners later scored off reliever Charlie Furbush.
“He pounded the strike zone much better and his secondary stuff was much better,” Thompson said. “That’s a good sign for him and a good sign for us.”
It wasn’t anything fancy for Ramirez. He had command of his pitches and went after hitters.
“It was way better,” he said. “I was being more aggressive with hitters. They got free swingers. In my mind, I said just keeping throwing strikes. The two homers were on bad pitches with bad location.”
Besides Saunders, Smoak had a big game. He hit his 10th homer of the season in the second inning to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. With a single and a double and two walks, he reached base five times in the game, which ties a career high.
Brad Miller tied his career high with three hits, including an RBI double.