Matching last year's win total with four weeks left in the season was seen as a sign of better things to come for manager Eric Wedge and his team.
Dustin Ackley spoke optimistically after this latest win about the strides he’s seen the Mariners make.
The Mariners had just beaten journeyman Aaron Cook and the Boston Red Sox, 2-1, on Wednesday night to match their 2011 win total of 67 with four weeks of season to go. Beating a guy like Cook is about the same as matching any win total below the mid-80s: a somewhat modest achievement where you smile quietly and hold off on the champagne and cigars.
But considering what the Mariners have been through with both Cook and notching wins with any degree of frequency, it represents a first step toward what the team hopes will be a different degree of baseball in years to come.
“We’ve made improvements over earlier this year,” Ackley said. “We’ve kind of turned the page as far as a hitting standpoint. We’re coming up with some big hits in big situations. We may not be scoring seven or eight runs a game but we’re getting it done when it needs to be done.
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“And that’s what it takes to win.”
A crowd of 13,037 at Safeco Field saw Ackley notch the only hit that really mattered in this game off Cook, a 33-year-old starter who had two-hit the Mariners on only 81 pitches in a 5-0 shutout back in late June. Mariners manager Eric Wedge had been irate at his players after that game for continuously pounding pitch after pitch into the ground and not making any adjustments.
They did a better job this time and Ackley’s bases-loaded single in the fourth off Cook scored the only two runs Seattle would need — ending the pitcher’s personal scoreless streak against Seattle at 12 innings. The Red Sox got a run back in the sixth on a Cody Ross double to right field off Mariners starter Kevin Millwood.
But Millwood rallied for the final two outs of what would be his last inning, then watched the bullpen hold Boston down the rest of the way to secure his first victory since July 28. Millwood has only five wins this year, but also 10 no-decisions largely because of a lack of run support.
He was treated to a celebratory beer shower after the game. While that was going on, Wedge treated his players to some praise, saying they had a much better approach against Cook this time.
“It was so much better,” Wedge said. “I mean, I think he had the same pitch total halfway through the game that he did the entire game last time.”
The Mariners didn’t exactly run Cook out of the building. He set a career high with five strikeouts just three innings in, but the Mariners at least made him work this time with base runners in the five of his six innings before he left with his pitch count up at 93.
Seattle continued a trend of scoring in only one or two innings of the game — something the team has now done 16 games in a row. That resulted in yet another low-scoring affair that gave the bullpen little room for error.
But the bullpen held, with Stephen Pryor, Charlie Furbush, Josh Kinney and Lucas Luetge keeping it a one-run game in the seventh and eighth, and then Tom Wilhelmsen closing out the ninth.
Wilhelmsen walked the first batter he faced, then rallied with a pair of strikeouts before Ivan DeJesus grounded one back to him to end the game. The emergence of Wilhelmsen as the team’s full-time closer this year has been part of the progression of a team now 31-20 in the “second half” of the season.
“It’s great,” Wilhelmsen said of matching last year’s win total. “We have a chance to keep on building and keep on adding. Keep the momentum going. The past is the past and we’re looking forward.”
As Ackley mentioned, there is still work to be done offensively. A few of the wins, like this one, may have gone the other way against opponents less staggered than the imploding Red Sox.
But Wedge will take it for now. Winning the close games, he said, is an important step for a team that was losing all kinds of ways a year ago.
“These guys have worked hard to get better, and they are better,” Wedge said. “And they’re going to keep getting better. They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now, as well they should be. They’re finding different ways to win ballgames.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @gbakermariners.