ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.– In the aftermath of yet another one-run loss, Mike Sweeney shrugged off suggestions his lower back was too sore to play and insisted he was available when needed.
But the taped-up medicinal patch on Sweeney’s back, visible as he pulled off his Mariners jersey in preparation for a post-game shower, was a clear indicator his manager may have been less than comfortable using him to pinch hit.
The question of Sweeney’s availability arose in the aftermath of this 2-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday when manager Don Wakamatsu allowed .200-hitting utility infielder Josh Wilson to bat with one on and one out in the ninth.
Wilson popped out to first base. The rest was explained by the team’s woefully short bench as Seattle’s only healthy catcher, Josh Bard, called up from Triple-A earlier in the day, popped out foul to the opposing catcher to end the game.
“Whether it be 1-0, or 10-2, we’ve got to be able to score more than our opponents,” Sweeney said. “We’ve been struggling to do that.”
They’d likely have struggled less had Sweeney been in the lineup to begin with. Sweeney had hit home runs in his last three games as the starting designated hitter. But the Mariners went with Ken Griffey Jr. at DH instead and saw him go 0 for 4, his average dropping to .190 and his on-base-plus slugging percentage to .472.
Wakamatsu said before the game that it was important to get Griffey one start in Florida, this one against surging Rays pitcher Matt Garza, who allowed one run over six innings. Wakamatsu also suggested that Sweeney needed a rest, especially with an upcoming plane flight to Oakland after this one was done.
And while Wakamatsu mentioned nothing at the time about Sweeney already being hurt, it was clear from talking to the veteran hitter afterward that his back had been bothering him. Sweeney said that despite the issues, “I swung in BP and it felt OK,” but a player saying something and a manager buying it are two different things.
Having Sweeney could have helped a depleted-looking lineup and bench that gave starter Cliff Lee minimal support his first six innings. Lee had allowed just two hits through six, but could not hold a 1-0 lead in the seventh when doubles by B.J. Upton and Sean Rodriguez tied it up.
The Rays went ahead to stay in the ninth when Carl Crawford tripled just past the outstretched glove of left fielder Michael Saunders. Gabe Kapler then hit a sacrifice fly to left and Lee saw his record fall to 1-2 despite a 2.08 earned-run average.
Lee was asked what his previous playoff teams, in Cleveland and Philadelphia, would say to one another during tough times, when runs wouldn’t come.
“I didn’t say anything, I just did my job,” Lee said. “It’s up to whoever. I really can’t say anything to a hitter, being a pitcher. As soon as you start doing stuff like that, the game’s going to humble you pretty quick.”
Seattle opened the scoring in the fifth with three straight singles off Garza, by Wilson, Bard and Saunders, but then botched the rest of the frame as Ichiro Suzuki flied out and Chone Figgins grounded into a double play.
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