A sly grin came to Mallex Smith when asked about his previous failures to play the hero for a potential walkoff victory.
“I wanted to hit a homer,” he said sheepishly. “But with age comes knowledge. And I had a smarter plan and a smarter approach.”
At the ripe old age of 26, Smith delivered his first walkoff hit of his career Friday night to give the Mariners a 3-2 win over the Tigers.
And, no, it wasn’t a homer.
With two outs and Kyle Seager on third base and Omar Narvaez on second, Smith calmly punched a 3-2 fastball up the middle and into center field. Seager scored easily as the Mariners spilled over the dugout rail to mob Smith, delivering the now customary ripping of the jersey. Smith was later doused with a Gatorade by teammate Dee Gordon, who was wearing a Seahawks helmet for some reason.
“I’ve had chances before and I just told myself, ‘Don’t try to be more than who you are, we don’t need a homer, we don’t need a double, we just need a hit,’” he said. “I just tried to keep it as simple as possible.”
With the win, the Mariners have now won three games in a row, something they haven’t done since June 19-21. It was just Seattle’s third walkoff win of the season.
“We don’t win many 3-2 games,” manager Scott Servais said. “I can’t remember the last time we won a 3-2. It was nice to see all the guys up at the rail really pulling for each other.”
Indeed, in this step-back season that features an inexperienced bullpen and a lineup full of home-run hitters, the Mariners usually win or lose in decisive fashion — 38 games have been decided by five runs or more. And, yes, there have obviously been more losses. The last time Seattle had a game decided by run with three or less runs scored by both sides was a 2-1 loss to the Rangers on May 22.
But playing in these types of games can only help players like Smith or J.P. Crawford, who made a brilliant diving stop to end the top of the ninth, in their difficult development at the big-league level. With more young players coming, these are teachable moments.
“You have to learn how to win,” Servais said. “It’s making big plays. It’s executing big pitches late in the game. It’s calling the right pitch. It’s everybody doing their job. You get instant feedback in this game, whether it’s good or bad. It’s nice when you get the results. It helps build the confidence. We hope to be in the position in the future where we play a lot of these games with a lot of young players.”
In a season that’s been filled with far more inconsistency and struggles than reasonably expected, left-hander Yusei Kikuchi delivered a solid performance.
Kikuchi pitched 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on seven hits with no walks and four strikeouts but didn’t figure in the outcome since his team couldn’t push across a run. He didn’t dominate, but he was effective, making pitches and working around seemingly constant traffic.
“It was a nice outing by him,” Servais said. “It was nice to see him get deep in the ballgame with a low pitch count.”
It’s certainly been a season full of experiences for the Japanese star as he learns to adapt to a different style of baseball.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment has been the threat of power from every player in a team’s lineup. Throw in this juiced-up ball that reacts like a superball compared to the baseballs he used in Japan, and you get a pitcher who is reminded of the increased level of difficulty almost every start with a ball sent over the fence.
The Tigers grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Kikuchi, as he’s done often this season, made a mistake while up in the count. A 1-2 curveball that was supposed be buried in the dirt, spun over the middle of the plate. Brandon Dixon took full advantage of the gift, redirecting it off the electronic scoreboard behind the left-field wall for a solo homer.
Kikuchi’s second run allowed came an inning later when one-time Mariners catcher prospect John Hicks stayed on a first-pitch fastball and sent it over the wall in right field for a leadoff homer. It was the second straight game in Seattle that Hicks has homered.
“My message to him has been that solo home runs are OK,” catcher Tom Murphy said. “As long as he’s not walking guys and getting into tough situations, he’s going to be just fine.”
Kikuchi didn’t allow a run for the remainder of his outing. But it wasn’t without traffic on the bases. He escaped the fifth inning with some help from his defense, something that hasn’t been written often this season. After allowing back-to-back singles to start the frame, Hicks hit a hard sinking liner to center that Smith gloved at his shoelaces. Jeimer Candelario broke for third on contact thinking Smith had no play. Instead, Kikuchi got a double play that helped him post a scoreless frame.
Down 2-0 and doing nothing but making outs against Tigers starter Daniel Norris, the Mariners finally broke through in the seventh inning. Daniel Vogelbach doubled into deep right-center and Murphy followed with a line drive over the wall in left, just out of the reach of a leaping Niko Goodrum. In an earlier at-bat in the second inning, Murphy led off the inning with a double only to stand on second and watch Seager, Austin Nola and Kristopher Negron strike out.
He didn’t do the same, taking a lunging swing at a 2-2 slider and muscling it over the wall for his 10th homer of the season. The duo of Murphy and Narvaez have combined for 26 homers this season.
“I was just hoping it had enough or he couldn’t catch it,” Murphy said.
Seattle tried desperately to force the go-ahead run across, loading the bases against reliever Buck Farmer with two outs. But Crawford’s liner off lefty specialist Nick Ramirez was run down in right-center.
Felix Hernandez (lat strain) had his rehab schedule changed after looking so rusty in a live batting practice session on Thursday. Instead of reporting to short-season Everett on Sunday, Hernandez will throw a live batting practice session at T-Mobile Park. If that goes well, he’d then start his official rehab stint.
Hunter Strickland returned from his rehab stint with Class AAA Tacoma after throwing a 1-2-3 frame Thursday night in Reno. Strickland is expected be activated from the 60-day injured list this weekend. The Mariners will need to make room on the 40-man roster and will likely transfer someone on the 10-day injured list to the 60-day list to clear a spot.