Justin Smoak stood in one victorious corner of the Mariners’ clubhouse while Raul Ibanez lingered across the room.
Smoak has said as recently as this past weekend that he’d love to hit in the clutch like Ibanez does and repeated those words again after the Mariners’ 11-4 romp Monday night over the Boston Red Sox. A pair of doubles by Smoak with runners in scoring position and the 22nd home run of the season by Ibanez helped the revived-looking Mariners to their fifth win in the last seven games.
And for Smoak, a continued pattern of driving balls deep leads to hope that, like Ibanez, he too can prolong a career that once seemed stalled before he’d gotten out of the starting gate.
“You talk to these guys every day about it,” Smoak said about asking Ibanez and other veterans for advice on hitting in clutch situations. “I talked to (manager Eric) Wedge about it last week. I feel great at the plate. I’ve just got to start getting it done.”
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Smoak has actually been getting it done to a greater extent than any realize. His three-hit night in front of 21,830 at Safeco Field left him with an on-base-plus-slugging mark of .788, better than the .778 produced thus far by cleanup hitter Kendrys Morales.
And yet, fans debate long-term contract extensions for Morales, while it’s the major league future of Smoak they often banter about back-and-forth. Fueling that somewhat skewed perception is Smoak’s slugging percentage – now up to .419 and climbing.
There’s also his paltry average with runners in scoring position, which jumped from .130 to .163 Monday. That’s far lower than his regular .263 average and a major reason his runs batted in total remains a meager 17.
But his fourth-inning double opened the scoring in this game and helped the Mariners snap a team-wide 0-for-25 skid with runners in scoring position. The 15-hit attack was more than enough support for starter Felix Hernandez (9-4).
“I think it’s just wanting it so bad,” Smoak said. “I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself instead of going out there and relaxing, getting good pitches to hit and putting a good swing on it.
“That’s what you have to do in those situations. I’ve watched Raul do it all the time…”
This was a 2-2 game before Ibanez put the Mariners ahead with a solo shot to right field in the fifth inning off Tacoma native Jon Lester. Smoak then launched a three-run sixth by Seattle with an infield single. Michael Saunders had the inning’s big blow with the first of a pair of run-scoring doubles. Smoak scored on the play and trail runner Mike Zunino also came home when Red Sox outfielder Daniel Nava – who looked somewhat overmatched in his first big-league game playing center – committed a throwing error on the play.
It was the first multi-extra-base-hit game for Saunders since May 15.
As for Ibanez, he’s enjoyed watching this surprising Seattle resurgence against a bunch of winning clubs. Ibanez has homered eight times off left-handers this season, and this latest was his third on an 0-2 count.
“I was trying not to do too much 0-2 against a pitcher of that caliber,” he said of Lester, who was 8-4 with a 4.41 earned-run average coming in. “It’s not the position you want to be in, so I was just in survival mode trying to put it in play.”
Ibanez is just seven home runs back of Red Sox legend Ted Williams for the most ever hit by a player in his age (41) season. Part of his success hitting with runners in scoring position – he’s at .367 in that situation – has been his ability to clear his mind and simply focus on the pitch.
Ibanez admits he’s allowed himself the chance to enjoy things more this year than previously.
“At this point in my career, I prepare for every game like it’s my last,’’ he said. “You never know when that moment is going to come, but I just try to enjoy it and soak it in and stay in the moment.’’
He added: “We have a great group of young guys. I’m having a lot of fun with these guys. They’re keeping me young.’’
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.