The Mariners were fortunate to escape disaster in the eighth inning Friday night. Cory Gearrin used a lulling pace and a perfect slider to escape a bases-loaded, one-out situation on a stunning 1-2-3 double play where Eduardo Nunez stopped running after the first out was made at home on his slow bouncer up the first-base line.
It’s the type of unexpected, game-changing play that seems to save a victory from an inevitable defeat.
But there was no sidestepping a ninth inning where the Mariners’ closer didn’t look right from his first pitch and command issues followed.
Right-hander Hunter Strickland entered the game trying to protect a two-run run lead and keep the Mariners unbeaten. But after giving up a leadoff double to Rafael Devers, tossing a wild pitch and hitting Blake Swihart with a pitch, Mariners manager Scott Servais and athletic trainer Rob Nodine came to the mound to see if he was injured.
The conversation was brief and Strickland remained in the game. He didn’t finish it.
After getting an out at home on a nice play by first baseman Ryon Healy on a ground ball and a perfect throw to catcher Omar Narvaez, Strickland fell behind 2-0 to pinch-hitter Mitch Moreland on a pair of sliders. Forced to throw a fastball, he gutted a 95-mph heater down the middle of the plate that Moreland hammered into the right field seats for a three-run homer.
It was Strickland’s final pitch of the night. While his replacement Roenis Elias kept the deficit to one run, the Mariners went down in order in the bottom of the ninth to suffer a 7-6 loss — their first of the season.
So what happened in the conversation between Servais and Strickland?
“Guys on the bench had noticed he was shaking his arm or whatever,” Servais said. “We went to the mound and talked to him there. He said, ‘I’m fine. I’ll get through it and get these guys out.’ Obviously, it didn’t work out for him.”
Strickland is one of the many new faces on this team. Servais doesn’t have the past relationship with him to know what is or isn’t a health issue. He trusted what Strickland was saying.
“I know he’s a pretty tough guy and he’s wired the right way and that he’s pitched through some things in his career,” Servais said. “You certainly have to trust your guys in that spot. And I do. I do trust Hunter. He just made a bad pitch to Moreland and left a ball up. He certainly wasn’t sharp as we’ve seen him in the season.”
Catcher Omar Narvaez knew something wasn’t right.
“I think he was kind of sore,” Narvaez said. “You could see by his actions. His slider wasn’t sharp enough like he normally has it. Once I saw his slider hit Swihart, I thought something was going on because he normally can do whatever he wants with his slider.”
Narvaez was in the meeting.
“We have to trust him,” he said. “I’m not the one who makes the decision. But we have to go with what we’ve got. And if he says he’s fine then we are going to keep working with him.”
Strickland had a large ice pack on his shoulder postgame, which is common for any pitcher, but he continually flexed his right hand as if to find feeling in it. It was something he was doing in the game.
“I had some tightness in the back of the shoulder,” he said. “I was all over the place. Everybody saw it. It wasn’t good at all. I just wasn’t comfortable. But that’s no excuse, I still have to make pitches regardless.”
The problems didn’t stem from any one pitch.
“It was just kind of gradual,” he said. “It was some tightness, and it just never loosened up.”
And even with the tightness, Strickland felt he was good enough to pitch in the situation.
“We never feel tip top every day anyway,” he said. “That’s just part of the job, and I didn’t get it done today.”
But will he get a chance to do the job again this weekend or in the near future? Servais said that the plan is for Strickland to get checked out by team doctors. It seems unlikely that he will pitch in the remainder of the series versus the Red Sox and a 10-day injured-list stint even as a precaution might seem logical. It would weaken a bullpen that is far from deep or experienced.
Seattle wasted another strong offensive showing. They banged out four homers, including three off Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi, giving them 12 on the season. But their defense cost them a run in the fifth inning and the bullpen couldn’t protect a three-run lead.
The circumstances surrounding the second start of rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi were slightly different Friday night. Unlike his first start in Tokyo where he was making history as the first Japanese player to make his major-league debut in Japan and pitching in a game that he knew would be the last for his hero, Ichiro, Kikuchi only had the moderately easier task of facing the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, a day after they were drubbed to start the season.
Facing a potent Boston lineup that is willing grind out at-bats and make pitchers work, Kikuchi gave the Mariners a solid outing in just his second big-league start.
Kikuchi pitched six innings, allowing three runs (two earned) on four hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
The Mariners’ first run came in the most unexpected of ways. Leadoff hitter Mallex Smith, who came into the game with seven career homers in 295 major-league games, picked up his eighth. Batting leadoff and facing flamethrower Eovaldi, Smith jumped on the second pitch he saw, yanking a fly ball over the wall in right field for his first career leadoff home run and a 1-0 lead.
The Mariners were a team expected to hit homers and had hit five in the opening game of the series, but Smith joining the party? Well, maybe there’s something in the new pinkish hue that is throughout T-Mobile Park.
The Mariners made it 2-0 via the long ball from a more expected source. Domingo Santana crushed a hanging breaking ball from Eovaldi into the visitors bullpen for a solo homer and a 2-0 lead. It was Santana’s third homer of the season and 10th run batted in.
One of Kikuchi’s few mistakes came in the second inning and it cost him a run. He left a fastball right down the middle to Xander Bogaerts. It resulted in a solo homer that cut the lead to 2-1.
But the Mariners answered immediately with, of course, another long ball. Catcher Omar Narvaez came into the game hitless in nine at-bats. But he broke the drought by pulling a line drive just over the right-field wall for another solo homer.
Seattle continued to build its lead on Eovaldi. With runners on first and third, Ryon Healy smoked an RBI double off the wall in deep center to score a run. Smith and Dee Gordon followed with sacrifice flies to center to make it 6-1.
The Mariners gave back a run when Beckham made an error to start the fifth inning. The runner came around to score. Boston trimmed to lead to 6-3 in the sixth when J.D. Martinez annihilated a pitch from Kikuchi over the wall in center for a solo homer.