OAKLAND, Calif. — Sure, the Mariners are in the midst of a stretch playing against teams with sub-.500 records, so that should work in their favor.
Perhaps it’s instructive to remember that it wasn’t so long ago they were below that mark and scuffling. The defeat Friday night against the Oakland Athletics proved that victories aren’t guaranteed. And the 4-3 triumph Saturday provided a verifying reminder that few of them will be easy.
But it should help having a resurgent and revamped bullpen led by a blossoming young closer to turn to in a one-run game.
Rookie Edwin Diaz made it 6 for 6 in save opportunities by working a 1-2-3 ninth inning. He got help on a tremendous catch in foul territory from first baseman Adam Lind and then struck out Coco Crisp on a nasty slider to end the game.
Seattle improved to 61-54 and remains two games back for the second wild-card spot. The Mariners have won seven of their past eight games.
Hisashi Iwakuma had a middling performance for Seattle, but improved to 14-7. It was the bullpen, however, that walked the tight rope to protect a one-run lead and secure the victory. Nick Vincent, Arquimedes Caminero, Tom Wilhelmsen and Diaz didn’t allow a run in 32/3 innings. Over the past eight games, Seattle’s bullpen has allowed just one earned run in 271/3 innings.
“Our bullpen was outstanding,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “It was obviously the story of the game. They were very good and they needed to be. We didn’t have much room for error.”
Iwakuma pitched 51/3 innings, giving up three runs on nine hits with no walks and two strikeouts. It was a battle for him all evening. He gave up leadoff hits in five of the six innings he started, including the first four. Yet, he managed to limit the damage despite all that traffic on the bases and lingering discomfort in his neck.
He woke up Friday morning with neck spasms and notified Servais of the issue. The spasms were bad enough that he scrapped much of his day-before-start regimen to get treatment.
“Until noon today, we didn’t even know if he’d make the start,” Servais said.
Iwakuma got treatment before the game, and though he didn’t feel 100 percent, he still managed to give the Mariners a chance to win.
“As the game progressed, from the third inning on, I started to feel stiffness,” Iwakuma said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “I think you could see my body was starting to fly open and my elbow wasn’t as high as I wanted it to be. Today I got very lucky for the win.”
The Mariners took the lead for good in the fifth inning, breaking a 1-1 tie. With two outs and Ketel Marte on second, Seth Smith dumped a single into left that scored a run. The lead was extended in one quick, smooth, vicious swing from Robinson Cano. As he’s done more and more this season, Cano ambushed the first pitch he saw, from Oakland starter Kendall Graveman — a cutter over the middle of plate — and hit a low laser that carried well over the wall in dead center.
“I was just hoping it was going to go over (the center fielder’s) head,” Cano said. “I knew I hit it good. But you are in Oakland. You never know. There isn’t the heat to help the ball fly.”
The two-run homer gave Seattle a 4-1 lead. It was Cano’s 26th home run of the season. It was the ninth homer Cano has hit on the first pitch, tied for most in baseball with Chris Davis of the Orioles. Before the season, Cano promised he would be more aggressive on first pitches, feeling he was giving away too many hittable pitches.
“It’s your job as a hitter to be ready for that pitch,” he said. “I have nine homers on the first pitch, but how many do I have where I’m out?”
Down 1-0 after the second inning, Seattle answered in the fourth inning, getting its first run against Graveman. Nelson Cruz jumped on the first pitch of the inning, drilling a homer over the wall in right-center. Cruz’s 29th homer of the year tied the score at 1-1.