Rich Hill strikes out 10 in six innings and limits damage to a Chris Iannetta home run as Oakland earns a 6-1 victory.
It’s a result that wasn’t unforeseen.
In the sun-drenched days of spring training where opposing professional scouts did their early preparation, many offered a familiar cautionary criticism of the 2016 Mariners — the team could/would struggle against left-handed starting pitching due to their preponderance of left-handed hitters in their lineup. Even with platoons at first base and right field, the past track records trended toward trouble.
In the ultra-small sample size of five games, it’s been relatively true.
Oakland @ Mariners, 1:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
For the second straight night, a relatively unknown left-handed starting pitcher bottled up Seattle’s offense in a nondescript 6-1 loss to the Oakland Athletics.
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The Mariners have faced left-handed starting pitchers in four of their five games and lost three. They are hitting .167 (17 for 102) with 12 walks and 24 strikeouts vs. lefties. Six of the 17 hits have been homers.
The exciting and promising two wins to end the season-opening series with the Rangers has now been replaced with two straight defeats. Twice in that series in Texas, the Mariners (2-3) scored five or more runs in an inning. They’ve yet to score that much in two total games at Safeco Field.
“We haven’t swung the bat real well the last couple of nights,” managers Scott Servais said. “When you don’t hit, it’s tough to get anything going, any sort of momentum. It happens. We are five games into a long season.”
Rich Hill hasn’t been known as much more than a journeyman left-hander with an above-average curveball for much of his 12-year career. But he pitched with command and confidence on Saturday night.
Hill and his many variations of the breaking ball and arm slots mystified Mariners’ hitters for six innings, giving up one run on five hits with a walk, two hit batters and 10 strikeouts.
“Double-digit strikeouts is not great,” Servais said. “We are looking for a little bit more competitive at-bats. Rich Hill has a good curveball. He finished us off late in counts and went to it often. And we weren’t able to adjust.”
It was a significant improvement to Hill’s previous outing where he went 22/3 innings, giving up four runs (two earned) on three hits with a walk and three strikeouts.
“The biggest thing, he was getting his curveball over for strikes whenever he wanted to,” catcher Chris Iannetta said. “It was his go-to pitch in big situations, early in the count he was using it and he was very versatile with it too.”
Hill’s only blemish on his outing came in the third inning with two outs. Iannetta jumped on a first-pitch curveball, crushing it into The ‘Pen for a solo homer. But that was it for Mariners offense.
“It’s one of the few good swings we had on a curveball,” Servais said.
They still put base runners on against Hill in five out of the six innings, but never made a serious push at scoring. Down 4-1 in the sixth, Ketel Marte was hit by a pitch to start the inning. But Hill struck out Robinson Cano, gave up a single to Nelson Cruz and then struck out Kyle Seager and Iannetta to end the inning.
The two home losses with little offense already have fans predisposed to seeing such struggles, grumbling in anger.
“It’s a little early, you know,” Iannetta said. “We just have to keep going out and getting good at-bats. Everyone is working hard to do that. You are going to have nights like this. Unfortunately that’s two in a row, but it’s still early.”
Hill also had the benefit of pitching with a lead from the first inning on.
Mariners starter Nathan Karns battled through an eternal, 35-pitch first inning, allowing two runs on four hits. He was able to find some efficiency for the next three innings and seemed poised to work a scoreless fifth inning as well. But a two-out, 3-2 changeup that stayed up in the zone was redirected into the stands in right-center by Josh Reddick for a two-run homer to put Oakland up 4-1.
“He was one pitch away from having a really good outing,” Iannetta said. “That pitch to Reddick, we’re 3-2 with a base open. We called changeup and we left it on too much of the plate in a situation where we could be more risky and throw it below the zone. It’s one pitch we’d like to have back. It changes the complexion of his outing and the game.”
Karns finished the inning and was done after 95 pitches. He allowed four runs on seven hits with a walk and six strikeouts.
“They did a good job of battling and not allowing me to work efficiently,” Karns said.
Oakland pushed two runs across against the Mariners’ bullpen, getting one against Tony Zych in the sixth inning on an RBI single from Jed Lowrie and another in the eighth off Vidal Nuno on a run-scoring double from Stephen Vogt.