SEATTLE – On another night of intrigue with the Seattle Mariners, reports about shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt were generating more hits than the M’s themselves against the Texas Rangers.
Then Franklin Gutierrez stepped to the plate in the eighth inning and turned the focus solely on Safeco Field.
Gutierrez’s three-run home run with two outs in the eighth and his team behind by a run lifted the Mariners to a 3-1 victory Thursday in the opener of a four-game series against the Rangers.
“We got the first one,” said Ken Griffey Jr., whose walk against Rangers left-hander C.J. Wilson brought Gutierrez to the plate.
Nobody needed to be reminded of the importance of this game.
The Mariners trailed the American League West-leading Rangers by 4½ games, and the series would do a lot to determine their fate going into the July 31 trade deadline. A four-game pratfall against the Rangers could turn them into an organization looking more to the future than the stretch drive.
Mariners starter Felix Hernandez limited the Rangers to three hits through eight innings, allowing only a sixth-inning run on his wild pitch.
Rangers starter Tommy Hunter, a two-time Olympic judo champion making his seventh major league start, body dropped six shutout innings on the Mariners. Right-hander Darren O’Day cruised through the bottom of the Mariners’ order in the seventh, and left-hander C.J. Wilson took over in the eighth, when the Mariners finally pounced.
Ichiro Suzuki slapped a flare into left field that bounced away after David Murphy’s diving attempt, allowing Ichiro to reach second with a double. Russell Branyan grounded back to the mound and Jose Lopez flied out, bringing Griffey to the plate.
Despite his .215 average, teams have pitched Griffey carefully in situations like this, and Wilson was no different. He threw three straight balls before Griffey swung hard and missed a fastball on the inner half.
“When it was 3-0, I was looking to hit it out,” Griffey said.
He took a pitch for strike two and changed his approach, thinking only about drawing a walk to bring hot-hitting Gutierrez to the plate.
“It’s amazing the presence (Griffey) has in the lineup,” Wakamatsu said. “Teams still don’t want to pitch to him because they look up there and see that he’s got 10 home runs this year and 621 in his career. That walk allowed us to get righty on lefty and allowed us to get the hottest hitter on the team up there.”
Gutierrez crushed a first-pitch fastball over the fence in left-center field to give the Mariners a 3-1 lead and extend his hitting streak to 12 games.
•Before the game the Mariners called up infielder Chris Shelton and sent left-hander Jason Vargas down to Triple-A Tacoma.