SEATTLE – As the Texas Rangers pieced together their seven-run third inning against Mariners starter James Paxton, it was difficult to imagine that Sunday’s game at Safeco Field might end with Nelson Cruz taking an involuntary bath in orange Gatorade after a game-winning hit in the bottom of the ninth.
But Cruz’s presence in the lineup is evidence enough that this could be a different kind of season for the Mariners – one in which early, frustrating deficits are not certain to preclude victory.
In other words, these guys can hit. And they did on Sunday afternoon, repeatedly, until the Rangers’ five-run lead was erased and the Mariners were dancing around Cruz near first base after his two-out, RBI single lifted them to a wild, 11-10 victory over the Rangers before an approving crowd of 31,601.
“They’re built for this. They’re tough,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Character wise, they’re tough. We have a nice mix of veterans and young players. This team is built for greatness. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I like where we are.”
The final blow, a sharp single to left field off Texas closer Neftali Feliz, was not Cruz’s first. He augmented his heroics with a pair of home runs – a solo blast over the left-field fence with two outs in the first inning, and a towering, three-run homer to left field in the third after Texas had taken a 7-2 lead.
He struck out three times in between his second homer and his game-winning single, but the Mariners will gladly accept those whiffs in exchange for the five RBI – and the eight home runs Cruz has smacked in Seattle’s last eight games.
Seattle’s 3-4-5 hitters – Robinson Cano, Cruz and Kyle Seager – combined for nine hits (three apiece), two walks, four runs and nine RBI.
“It was nice. It was a great win,” Cruz said. “We needed this one, you know? We showed a lot of heart.”
After taking a 2-0 lead in the first inning – Austin Jackson led off with a homer – the Mariners, and Paxton, ran into major trouble in the third.
Texas constructed its big inning slowly. It began with a bunt single, then a throwing error by shortstop Willie Bloomquist. Prince Fielder knocked an RBI single. Adrian Beltre dribbled an infield hit to third base. Shin-Soo Choo drove in a run with a groundout. Adam Rosales drove in another run with a single. Rougned Odor drove in another run with another groundout, which would have been an inning-ending double play if he hadn’t beaten Bloomquist’s throw to first base.
Then Jake Smolinski upped the ante, belting a two-run homer to left field, before a ground-rule double by Carlos Corporan and an RBI single by Leonys Martin chased Paxton from the game. Only two of the seven runs were earned, but that was little consolation after Paxton’s second consecutive rocky outing.
“Things weren’t going my way, but I also wasn’t making good pitches,” said Paxton, who has now allowed 12 runs in his last two starts. “I was staying in the middle of the zone too much and also making mistakes. I’m struggling right now, but I’m not going to quit fighting. I’m going to figure it out and persevere.”
The Mariners (5-7) did, even though after Cruz pulled them within 7-5 with his second homer – two more hits forced Texas to remove starter Ross Detwiler, whose day was as rough as Paxton’s – the Rangers got to Seattle reliever Tyler Olson for three runs in the sixth inning to take a 10-5 lead.
Seager made it 10-6 by singling in Cano from second base in the seventh, and after Rangers reliever Taylor Scheppers walked the bases loaded in the eighth, Cano drew another walk from reliever Keone Kela (a Chief Sealth High School alum) to force in a run and cut the deficit to 10-7.
Two batters later, Seager rifled a single to right-center to score two runs off Feliz and pull Seattle within 10-9.
Feliz stayed in the game for the ninth, attempting to record a rare, five-out save. He couldn’t. Brad Miller, who entered as a pinch-hitter in the seventh, singled to start the inning. Seth Smith, who entered as a pinch-hitter and drew a crucial walk in the eighth, worked a lengthy at-bat for another important walk to give the Mariners runners at first and second with one out.
Jackson followed with a game-tying, RBI single that capped an eight-pitch at-bat, and after Rickie Weeks flew out to center field, the Rangers chose to intentionally walk Cano to load the bases for Cruz with two outs.
On Feliz’s fifth pitch – and his 47th of the game, the most he’s thrown as a reliever – Cruz ripped a fastball into left field, and the celebration was on.
“I’m glad he’s on our side,” Miller said. “Obviously he got us going early, and just to battle back … I think we all knew he was going to come up for us there.”
Said McClendon: “I don’t think you can ask for anything better, both the eighth and the ninth, (than) to have your 3-4-5 hitters up. Sometimes they’ll get it done and sometimes they won’t. We just happened to have our hottest hitter at the plate in that situation.”
Christian Caple can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @ChristianCaple