Fernando Rodney and Carson Smith blow a 6-4 Seattle lead.
The question loomed large — again: At what point do the Mariners stop giving the ball to Fernando Rodney with the game on the line?
The issue came roaring to the surface once more this season on Saturday afternoon. Rodney entered the eighth inning trying to protect a two-run lead.
He walked the first batter he faced. He gave up a two-run homer to the next batter, sinking what would have been the Mariners’ first three-game winning streak since late May.
Toronto @ Mariners, 1:10 p.m., ROOT Sports
Rodney blew the lead, and the usually steady Carson Smith gave up two more runs in the ninth inning en route to Seattle’s disappointing 8-6 defeat against the Toronto Blue Jays.
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In 10 games in July, Rodney has given up four homers and seven runs in 82/3 innings. He has allowed runs in six of his past eight appearances. So how much longer can the Mariners go with Rodney in decisive moments?
“Listen, it’s not been good as of late,” Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon said. “That’s certainly something that we have to discuss and try to get him straightened out some kind of way because these are just tough losses.”
Smith has been one of the Mariners’ biggest surprises this season. It seems strange now, but Smith wasn’t initially on the major-league roster coming out of spring training. He has since become the Mariners’ closer, assuming the job after Rodney lost it. He has allowed just three runs in his past 14 games.
But Smith is still only 25 years old and in his first full season in the majors. Saturday marked his third consecutive appearance and his fifth in the past eight days, a workload he simply isn’t accustomed to yet.
Smith walked the leadoff batter in the ninth inning — “That’s probably the worst thing you can do, especially in that part of the lineup,” he said — and then gave up a double. He intentionally walked Edwin Encarnacion to load the bases before giving up a two-run single to Chris Colabello.
Smith exited without recording an out.
“The workload has probably been too much as of late,” McClendon said. “That’s three out of three (days pitched) and five out of eight. That’s just too many days for him. It’s tough.”
Smith wouldn’t lean on that.
“To be honest, I felt great,” he said. “I felt as good as any other day. I’m not going to use it as an excuse.”
The Mariners were looking to win three games in a row for the first time since May 25-27, when they swept Tampa Bay to get to .500. They then lost eight of their next nine games. They’ve never recovered.
Saturday provided a small opportunity to make some progress — how much progress depends on your interpretation of the word and this season. Instead, it was another disappointing and frustrating day.
Starter J.A. Happ gave up three runs and couldn’t get out of the second inning, but Vidal Nuño and Tom Wilhelmsen combined to give up one run in 51/3 innings of relief.
The Mariners led 6-3 after five innings and still led 6-4 heading into the eighth inning. Robinson Cano hit a three-run homer in the fourth that gave the Mariners a 6-3 lead. It was Cano’s 10th home run of the season.
That set the stage for Rodney, who just a year ago recorded 48 saves and represented the Mariners in the All-Star Game. He has not come close to that form this season, and McClendon said Rodney’s struggles begin with his location.
“His stuff is good,” McClendon said. “It’s just location.”
McClendon said his entire bullpen was fatigued; Mark Lowe, another option in late innings, had pitched in two consecutive games. So McClendon turned to Rodney to face the bottom of the Blue Jays’ order.
Rodney’s ERA is now 5.90 after giving up two more runs on another home run, this one to Ezequiel Carrera.
“I’m not putting my head down,” Rodney said. “I’m going to continue. Sometimes you have a tough year.”