Mariners keep playoff hopes alive with win over Twins

Nelson Cruz homers twice as the Seattle Mariners nip Minnesota to keep playoff hopes alive

MINNEAPOLIS — It wasn’t the series sweep they had hoped for when they arrived on Friday. But the Mariners can continue to dream of a spot in the playoffs for another day thanks to Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Twins at Target Field.

Seattle improved to 82-73 — guaranteeing a winning record. With Baltimore also winning Sunday, the Mariners remain 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card standings with seven left to play.

“It’s what we talked about way back in February: Can we play some meaningful games down the stretch, right at the end?” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s exciting. They need to enjoy it. They need to have fun. When you stress out and you don’t enjoy going through it, you don’t learn anything from it.”

The Mariners begin their final road series of the season Monday in Houston with a three-game set. The Astros have been a nemesis for Seattle. The Mariners are just 6-10 vs. Houston, including a 2-5 record at Minute Maid Park.

“We haven’t matched up great against them,” Servais admitted. “They’re athletic. Their bullpen is pretty good. There are a lot of things. We’ve got to play well. Whatever has happened in the past, you can’t do anything about it. You have to look at the next three games as win the series. We need help and we know that. There are a lot of other games going on right now, but we need to win that series.”

Seattle won the series with the Twin thanks to the power hitting of Nelson Cruz and Jesus Sucre.

Wait, Jesus Sucre?

Yes, the backup catcher, who came into this season with a career .178 batting average and .435 on-base plus slugging percentage, stole some of the home run-hitting spotlight from Cruz on Sunday. Sucre’s two-run homer in the fifth inning off Twins’ starter Hector Santiago gave the Mariners 3-2 lead — one they would not relinquish.

“He just doesn’t try to do too much,” Servais said. “He’s just trying to put the bat on the ball and get some pitches to hit. He’s not trying to kill it. He’s just trying to hit it. And good things are happening.”

Sucre doubled in his first at-bat, going 2-for-3. Over his last four games, he has 10 hits in 14 at-bats with two doubles, a homer and five RBIs.

Sucre couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of it all.

“I don’t know,” he said chuckling. “I’m just going out and trying to have fun and trying to stay aggressive. I mean, I don’t know. I guess I’m just swinging it good.”

But there was some process to it. Hitting coach Edgar Martinez told him that the left-handed throwing Santiago likes to challenge right-handed hitters inside with fastballs.

“That’s what I was looking for the whole time and I put a good swing on it,” he said.

Sucre’s homer provided a mental lift for M’s starter Taijuan Walker. The right-hander had battled command and mechanical issues for the first four innings, giving up two runs. After Sucre’s homer, he came back with his only 1-2-3 inning of his outing.

“Everything just kind of felt off and I had to battle the first few innings,” Walker said. “After he hit that homer, it sparked me up and gave more energy.”

Walker (7-10) was lifted with one out in the sixth after he gave up another run.

“To get as deep as he did was huge,” Servais said. “He was kind of teetering there in the third inning. But he righted the ship and once we got the lead, he stepped it up.”

Nick Vincent closed out the sixth and worked a scoreless seventh. Steve Cishek added a scoreless eighth and Edwin Diaz posted a 1-2-3 ninth for his 17th save.

While Sucre’s power and production was unexpected, Cruz’s ability to carry a team is not. And he basically did that in Minnesota. The Mariners’ slugger belted his 40th and 41st homer of the season on Sunday, despite having a lingering wrist issue that eventually forced him out of the game. Cruz hit four homers in three games — the shortest being 381 feet, according to the MLB statcast. The four homers totaled a distance of 1,760 feet.

In the second inning with Seattle down 1-0, Cruz tied the game with a solo blast into the upper deck in left-center above the bullpen, a shot that measured at 432 feet. After Sucre had put Seattle up 3-2, Cruz provided the difference in the game, yanking a laser of a line drive over the wall in left field. Cruz was in agony the pitch before having tweaked his sore left wrist on a swing and miss. Servais and the training staff came out and checked on him, but Cruz opted to stay in the game.

“Heck of a series by Nelson, outstanding,” Servais said.

After he circled the bases, Cruz received congratulations from his teammates and immediately went to the clubhouse and into the training room. He was later lifted for a pinch-hitter. Following the game, Cruz had the wrist bandaged and with ice.

“It’s better than it was earlier,” he said. “I’ve been dealing with for four or five days already. It’s been like that for a while. The pain is when I extend it is when I feel it. I still have my strength. It just hurts. The pain goes away.”

Asked if he expects to play on Monday in Houston, Cruz said, “Yeah, I do.”