Clutch hit almost the only offensive highlight for the Mariners
Here it was, a moment that seemed unlikely given how the game had unfolded.
That the Mariners even had this chance — two outs, runner on second, tie game in the bottom of the ninth — was attributable to a lockdown pitching performance.
But now here was the long-awaited, few-and-far-between chance: Nelson Cruz, one of the most feared hitters in the American League, stepping to the plate with two outs in the ninth, the score tied at one and Brad Miller on second.
“I like the challenge,” Cruz said. “I want to be in that spot.”
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The Mariners signed Cruz to hit homers and drive in runs, but also for moments like this: the big situation, the deciding play, the dagger. And Cruz delivered on all of that with a walkoff line drive into the gap that scored Miller to give the Mariners a 2-1 victory Friday against Boston. It marked just the second hit in Seattle’s past 21 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
It was the Mariners’ third walkoff victory this season and the second walkoff hit for Cruz.
“They had a guy rolling, and he had some tough at-bats, and what does he do?” Miller said. “He battles to the end. That last at-bat was amazing. For him to come up big, the game finds you. Both of his walkoffs have been in games where not everything had been going right for him, but he just fights. That’s pretty cool for a young player to see.”
Cruz struck out in each of his three previous at-bats, part of an 11-strikeout night for the Mariners, one shy of their season high. He spoiled the Mariners’ only other opportunity with a runner in scoring position when he struck out in the first inning, stranding Robinson Cano at second. He fouled a ball off his shin in the fourth inning, sending him to the ground and leaving a bruise, then struck out on the next pitch.
But with first base open and Kyle Seager on deck, Cruz made the Red Sox pay for pitching to him in the ninth.
“That’s a terrible decision on my part,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “I own that one.”
That the Mariners still had a chance was a testament to the performances from starter J.A. Happ and reliever Tom Wilhelmsen.
At this point, what else needs to be said about Happ? Perhaps most telling is that what he did against the Red Sox — handcuffing Boston for seven innings and allowing just one run — is no longer surprising. In fact, it has become something close to the norm.
Wilhelmsen pitched two scoreless innings of relief.
“I was just tickled to death,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said. “Any time your starter can give you seven solid innings, you get the chance to match up with your bullpen the way you would like, and that was the case.”
The only dent on Happ’s night was Xander Bogaerts’ two-out triple in the second that gave Boston a 1-0 lead. Other than that, Happ let just one other runner into scoring position.
Happ has made seven starts for the Mariners, and has gone at least six innings in six of them and given up two runs or less in six of them. He lowered his ERA to 2.98.
“I recognized their guy (Clay Buchholz) was going to be tough really early on and tried to keep us as close as I could,” Happ said.
Before Miller reached second in the ninth inning, the Mariners had only one other runner reach scoring position, and that was Cano in the first.
Seth Smith hit a solo home run, his third of the season, to tie the game at one in the sixth inning. Smith’s hit snapped a streak of 15 hitters failing to reach base, and the Mariners had only three hits off Buchholz through eight innings.
But Cruz cleared the memory of that with one swing.