CHICAGO — It ended Sunday night when a pitcher, pinch-hitting for another pitcher, put down a perfect safety squeeze bunt in the 12th inning that closed out a stunning prime-time collapse by the Mariners.
Jon Lester’s bunt — yes, Tacoma’s own Jon Lester — executed a bunt the lifted the Chicago Cubs to a remarkable 7-6 comeback victory in a game that marked the Mariners’ first Sunday night ESPN exposure in 12 years.
"That’s about as good as you can execute the squeeze," reliever Cody Martin conceded. "He clearly deadened it. It was a lot longer run than you’d want to get to the ball.
"If he hits it any hard, we most likely get that play."
True enough. There wasn’t much that Martin or the Mariners could do on Lester’s bunt. Jason Heyward, who opened the inning with a double, raced across to score the winning run.
But make no mistake. This was a crushing loss in which the Mariners blew an early 6-0 lead, built on three two-run homers, through a series of numbing mistakes that created a funereal atmosphere afterward in the clubhouse.
"It’s disappointing," manager Scott Servais said. "I thought we had the game in hand. For our club, coming in here, they have the best record in baseball and, quite frankly, we should have won two out of three.
"It didn’t happen. You have to finish."
The Mariners built their early lead by capitalizing on the Cubs’ decision to start ex-Baltimore lefty Brian Matusz, for whatever reason, instead of Kyle Hendricks.
They did so after promoting Matusz from Triple-A Iowa after two strong starts. He pitched three innings and gave up a two-run homer in each one as the Mariners built a 6-0 lead.
Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Dae-Ho Lee did the damage.
Felix Hernandez worked around a first-inning jam, when he walked the first two batters, and carried a one-hit shutout into the fifth before he lost the strike zone in the fifth.
Three walks, a hit batter (on an 0-2 count) and a soft single resulted in two runs. It also pushed Hernandez’s pitch count to 103, which is why the Mariners went to a pinch-hitter in the sixth.
"I lost my command in the fifth," he said. "It’s a tough loss."
The Mariners wasted a great chance to answer after loading the bases with no outs in the sixth inning against Joe Nathan and Travis Wood. They got nothing.
Shawn O’Malley and Leonys Martin struck out, and Cano popped to short.
Chicago pulled closer in the seventh on Ben Zobrist’s two-out RBI triple against Tom Wilhelmsen before Edwin Diaz closed the inning by striking out Russell on three pitches.
Diaz ran into his own trouble in the eighth on successive one-out singles by Willson Contreras and Matt Szczur. Then Diaz did what Diaz does. He struck out the next two hitters.
That meant closer Steve Cishek inherited a 6-3 lead to start the ninth.
He couldn’t hold it.
Anthony Rizzo lined a one-out double to right and went to third on Zobrist’s single to left.
Addison Russell lined an RBI single to left and reached second when Guillermo Heredia inexplicably threw to third, where he had no chance to get Zobrist.
That extra base would prove crucial.
The Cubs loaded the bases when Cishek hit Heyward with a pitch, but the Mariners seemed to survive when Willson Contreras hit a grounder to third. The play at first was bang-bang, bit Contreras beat the relay.
The Mariners settled for one out, and the Cubs had runners at first and third. Cishek jumped ahead 0-2 to Matt Szczur before unleashing the wildest of wild pitches.
Catcher Mike Zunino never had a chance. Russell scored the tying run.
"My stuff was terrible tonight," Cishek said. "I had a hard time commanding my fastball. My slider was about the same. And I got exposed."
He wasn’t alone.
The Mariners could point to Hernandez’s fifth-inning wildness as providing the Cubs with two gift runs. There was the complete waste of a scoring opportunity in the sixth inning.
Heredia’s mistake in throwing to the wrong base permitted the tying run to score on the wild pitch. Too many mistakes. Definitely not ready for prime time.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Steve Cishek’s wild pitch on an 0-2 count to Matt Szczur with two outs in the ninth inning permitted the tying run to score.
"I tried to do too much with a slider," Cishek said, "and I threw it straight into the ground. It’s just unacceptable."
PLUS: Mike Zunino had two doubles in five at-bats…Nelson Cruz is 8-for-14 in his career against Cubs starter Brian Matusz with three homers and seven RBIs…Drew Storen pitched a one-two-three sixth inning in his second appearance since joining the Mariners.
MINUS: Oh, where to start? Steve Cishek blew a three-run lead in the ninth and permitted the tying run to score on a two-out wild pitch on an 0-2 count…left fielder Guillermo Heredia threw to the wrong base in Chicago’s three-run ninth, which allowed the tying run to get into scoring position…a poor throw to second by first baseman Dae-Ho Lee opened the way to Chicago’s two-run fifth inning…the Mariners failed to score in the sixth inning with the top of their lineup after loading the bases with no outs.
STAT PACK: The Mariners blew a six-run lead for the first time since June 20, 2103 against the Angels in Anaheim. In that game, they lost 10-9 after holding leads of 7-0 and 8-1.
QUOTABLE: Manager Scott Servais on the Mariners inability to extend their lead after loading the bases with no outs in the sixth inning: "It’s been something that’s gotten us in a number of these tough losses this year…Those would have been big add-on runs."
SHORT HOPS: Cody Martin (1-1) go the loss. He was the winning pitcher on June 2 when the Mariners overcame a 10-run deficit in a 16-13 victory at San Diego…Hector Rondon (2-2) got the victory. He was the eighth pitcher used by the Cubs.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners