SEATTLE – There’s a process a team must endure to transform from loser to contender, and the Seattle Mariners are still mired in learning it.
Contenders seize the few opportunities they get in a pitcher’s duel.
They steal key bases and don’t get thrown out easily.
They finish off rallies by executing fundamentals, advance runners with ground balls to the right side and bunts to put men in scoring position.
When they fail at any of those, especially in a tight game, they lose.
It happened to the Mariners on Sunday when the smallest thing might have made the biggest difference in a 2-1 loss to the San Diego Padres at Safeco Field.
The Mariners had few opportunities, but they minimized those they did have and lost a game that their pitchers – Felix Hernandez , Sean White and Eric O’Flaherty – gave them a chance to win.
Hernandez, in his second start after coming off the disabled list, gave up runs in the second and third innings and made it through five innings despite a loose handle on his fastball.
“He was inconsistent with his command,” said Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, irritated after the Mariners’ fourth loss in five games. “The first inning he was fine, but after that he got some balls up. He gave up some two-out RBI base hits. He didn’t pitch as well as he can, but he pitched well enough to win.”
The M’s scratched six hits and a walk in six innings against Padres starter Justin Germano but, after scoring their only run in the fourth on Jose Lopez’s RBI single, they didn’t get another hit until there were two outs in the eighth.
Long before that, the Mariners muffed opportunities to put Germano in a bind.
They ran themselves out of opportunities when Ichiro Suzuki and Adrian Beltre were both thrown out trying to steal in the first and second innings.
The Mariners had four straight hits in the second inning and scored only on Lopez’s single up the middle. The killer in that opportunity was Beltre’s attempted steal, snuffed when Padres catcher Josh Bard threw him out.
In the first, Suzuki led off with a single and immediately stole second, his 12th steal this season. Needing at least a grounder to the right side to push Suzuki to third, Jose Vidro instead bounced out to third. With Jose Guillen batting, Suzuki tried to swipe third and Bard threw him out.
The Mariners didn’t have another decent chance until the ninth when the two central figures in Hargrove’s recent lineup shuffle stepped up – Guillen, moved up to third in the order because of Ibanez’s bad back, and Ben Broussard, replacing Sexson in the No. 4 spot.
Guillen singled to center and Broussard singled to right, putting runners on first and second with nobody out against veteran Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. Just when it seemed Hoffman was in a supreme bind, it was the Mariners who gagged.
Beltre couldn’t lay down a bunt and, with two strikes, swung at a high changeup and popped out. Yuniesky Betancourt then flied out to left field on a play that likely would have scored pinch runner Jason Ellison, had Beltre been able to move him to third earlier in the inning.
Hoffman then turned Jose Lopez inside-out with his 74 mph changeup, striking him out to end a game that revealed yet another way for the Mariners to waste their opportunities.
It’s why they have fallen a game below .500 at 19-20 and are five-games behind the first-place Angels in the American League West.