ARLINGTON, Texas — Jason Vargas got the ground ball he needed Wednesday to put the exclamation point on a season that fully sets in motion the second leg of his major-league career.
With two on and two out in the sixth inning, Vargas got the fielder’s choice grounder that ended his day with no earned runs allowed and the Mariners leading 5-1.
Vargas would wind up with a no-decision after reliever Dan Cortes blew a three-run lead in the eighth inning, then lost the game in bizarre fashion in the ninth, 6-5, to the Texas Rangers.
But Vargas can still look to the offseason knowing that, after missing almost two full years due to hip labrum surgery in 2007 and 2008, he’s earned himself a spot in the Mariners’ rotation next spring.
“I think I proved I can pitch in this league,” said Vargas, who finished 9-12 with a 3.78 earned-run average in a career-high 192 2/3 innings. “And it’s not a question mark whether I can go out there every four or five days.”
Cortes, however, is still breaking in to the big leagues with much to prove. After retiring the first six batters of his career in first two outings, he threw nine straight balls in the eighth inning on Wednesday, wound up allowing three runs that tied the game 5-5, then somehow lost the game on a strikeout in the ninth.
After a two-out walk to Mitch Moreland, Cortes struck out pinch-hitter Nelson Cruz on a ball that bounced to the backstop. Cruz took off for first base on the wild pitch and catcher Guillermo Quiroz, trying to get Cruz at first, threw the ball down the right-field line for an error.
Moreland sprinted for home as Ichiro made an offline throw.
“I can’t remember ever losing a ballgame that way,” Mariners manager Daren Brown said. “But I just saw it.”
The crowd of 23,052 at Rangers Ballpark leapt with joy at the sudden turn of fortune for their squad, preventing Seattle’s first sweep here since 2001. With the loss, the Mariners fell to 61-97 and inched closer to a 100-loss season they’d seemed almost certain to avoid.
Seattle led all day after a two-run homer by Justin Smoak — his third long ball in three games here — that traveled 412 feet over the center-field fence off Rich Harden in the first inning. Texas scored an unearned run but then the Mariners went up 4-1 on a two-run double by Franklin Gutierrez in the fifth.
It was 5-2 for the Mariners when Cortes entered with two on and one out in the eighth and couldn’t throw strikes.
“You’ve just got to learn from that,” Cortes said in the clubhouse afterward. “And the next time I’m in a situation like that, try not to make the same mistakes I did.”
The late loss put a damper on a 4-5 trip by Seattle that easily could have gone 5-4 against two playoff-bound clubs.
But it ended on a positive note for Vargas, who admits he’s been feeling the strain of a long season since about mid-August in Cleveland.
“Physically, I felt fine,” he said. “It’s just a lot of innings. It’s the most innings I’ve ever thrown when I’ve been on the same team — minor league or major league — for a full season.”
He added: “For me, it’s a matter of learning when to back off a bit,” between starts and during games.
Vargas began the first leg of his comeback last season, when he pitched 91 2/3 innings with the Mariners and posted a 4.91 ERA. This year, he took the ERA down to 3.78 and — more importantly — did it while more than doubling his innings total.
It’s that latter stat, more so than the ERA, that solidifies Vargas’s standing with the club. While his strikeout and walk rates remained the same and his ERA was largely due to fewer home runs leaving the park, Vargas did eat up innings for a Mariners club that needed someone other than Felix Hernandez to pick up the slack.
And with 2011 expected to be another rebuilding year for the Mariners, penciling in a guy with 200-inning potential besides Hernandez gives the team one less thing to worry about this winter.
“It’s just knowing how to finish the season and learning how to get your body acclimated to the 34 starts or however many it winds up being,” Vargas said.
And now, with this season in the books for him, he’ll get another shot at it all in 2011.