The Mariners got out to an early lead and James Paxton was solid for 96 pitches. On his 97th, the tides turned for the Twins, who took the opening game of their three-game series.
MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe it would have been just another opportunity where they failed to execute and deliver. There had certainly been plenty prior to that ninth inning.
But inside the visitor’s clubhouse of Target Field, the Mariners privately grumbled about the scenario that should’ve played out and didn’t.
Oh, they fully admitted their mistakes in Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Twins in Minnesota’s home opener.
The numbers are so glaring that there was no ignoring or rationalizing them — 2 for 17 with runners in scoring position and 11 runners left on base.
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“We had tons of opportunities with guys on base,” manager Scott Servais. “I don’t know if it’s guys trying to do too much or whatever, but we’ve got to get them in.”
Couple that with their output in Wednesday’s loss to the Giants — 1 for 12 with runners in scoring position and 10 runners left on base — and you’ve got a whole lot of yuck.
“We left 10 guys on yesterday and 11 today and we haven’t had many hits with guys in scoring position,” Servais said. “The at-bats and where we are at what we are looking for, sometimes guys early in the season put a little too much pressure on themselves. The pressure should be on the pitcher. He’s got to make the pitches. We’ve got to let him come to us instead of going after some pitches we aren’t used to hitting.”
This cannot be blamed on the absences of Nelson Cruz and Mike Zunino and their power bats from their lineup. The Mariners (3-3) have just five homers in six games this season. Cruz has two of them, Mitch Haniger has two and Dee Gordon has one. But the Mariners didn’t need a home run to change the outcome, they simply needed a base hit, a productive out or something better than what they provided.
“We probably should have had a wider gap after it was 2-0,” Servais said. “It probably should’ve been, 4, 5, or even 6-0. We did a good job of getting guys on base, but we’ve got to execute better.”
And, yet, for all of their failures to capitalize on ample opportunities, several of the Mariners felt the whole game could have played out differently if not for a missed strike call from plate umpire Dan Bellino.
None wanted to speak on the record in order to avoid being fined and disciplined by Major League Baseball, but they made their thoughts known. While they didn’t think Bellino was very good or consistent for much of the game and hurt starter James Paxton’s overall pitch count, it was just one pitch that left them frustrated.
Trailing 3-2 in the eighth inning, Nick Vincent recorded two quick outs and appeared to have the third when he threw a nearly perfect 0-2 fastball to left-handed hitting Eddie Rosario. Bellino called it a ball to the dismay of Vincent and the Mariners’ dugout.
“It is what it is,” Vincent said.
But as another player pointed out: “It is what it was — right down the middle.”
Instead of the inning being over, Vincent was forced to throw another pitch to Rosario, who blasted a cut fastball into the right-field stands for a solo homer.
The one-run deficit had been pushed to two. And for Twins’ closer Fernando Rodney, that proved crucial when he walked Dee Gordon on four pitches to start the ninth inning. Instead of playing for one run and a tie, the Mariners had to get two runs off Rodney and needed more base runners.
“Changed the whole game,” another Mariner said of the blown strike call. “Down one run against Fernando Rodney in the ninth? And we get Dee on to start the inning. You’ll take your chances.”
Mariners fans know that the tight rope that Rodney walks in every save situation. Lessening his margin for error would’ve been a huge plus.
Instead, the former Mariners closer worked around the leadoff walk, picked up his first save and let the arrow fly in celebration.
The failed situational hitting and the sour solo homers late spoiled a pretty decent out from Paxton, who didn’t let a pregame incident with a bald eagle trying to land on his shoulder disrupt his mental preparation.
“I felt good today,” he said. “They worked some deep counts on me. They fouled a lot of pitches off. I think they were just trying to get my pitch count up and they did a good job of that.
Paxton appeared on his way to his first win of the season. Given a 2-0 lead before throwing a pitch, he worked his way through the first five innings without allowing a run, including retiring seven straight batters before starting the sixth inning. But he would never escape the sixth or even register an out. He allowed a leadoff single to Joe Mauer and then left a curveball over the middle of the plate that Miguel Sano launched over the wall in left field for a two-run homer that tied the score and ended Paxton’s outing.
“That one hurt,” Paxton said. “He hit a pretty good pitch. It wasn’t a great two-strike pitch, but it was down in the zone. He’s a very strong guy and he got enough of it to hit it out.”
The Mariners grabbed a quick 2-0 lead off Twins starter Kyle Gibson. Gordon led off the game with a single and later scored from third on Haniger’s ground ball to third. Daniel Vogelbach later added a RBI single to right to score Jean Segura.
Seattle had runners reach in seven of nine innings, but never scored again after the first inning.