OAKLAND, Calif. — Somewhat short on obvious talent, the Mariners knew they would have to spend the 2011 season limiting the mistakes that cost teams ballgames.
In fact, for the first two games of this series, it was the Oakland Athletics who booted the ball around, threw it away and generally embarrassed themselves at the fundamentals. But the tide turned partway through what became a 7-1 loss for the Mariners in Sunday’s finale, when they lowered their guard and began failing to make routine plays.
An error by shortstop Brendan Ryan and an ensuing ball lost in the sun by Milton Bradley gave the A’s a fourth-inning lead, then some additional fly-ball miscues in the seventh led to a four-run outburst that put the game away.
For the Mariners, off to a quicker start to 2011 than most had imagined, it was humbling reminder that they can’t afford to let up for even the briefest moment.
“We weren’t making plays,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “Obviously, the sun got us a couple of times. A couple of other balls dropped in there. We opened the door for them and they took advantage of it. That’s going to happen at this level.”
Oakland starter Gio Gonzalez handcuffed the Mariners on six hits through seven innings, denying Seattle its first sweep here since 2007. Gonzalez was pushed to the limit in his final frame of work when the Mariners, down by two, got runners to second and third with one out and Ichiro Suzuki due up.
A’s manager Bob Geren left Gonzalez in there, and Ichiro chopped one back to the mound for a second out, forcing the runners to hold. Chone Figgins then went down swinging at Gonzalez’s 116th and final pitch.
Oakland went on to score four the next time up.
“That’s just the way it goes sometimes,” said Mariners starter Doug Fister, who allowed just one earned run his first five innings. “As a pitcher, you’ve got to do what you can to keep your team in the game and give them a chance to win.”
Fister gave it his best. But down 2-1 in the sixth, he allowed a leadoff double to Josh Willingham and then a run-scoring single to Mark Ellis that gave the A’s needed insurance. Fister was pulled with two out in the inning and Josh Lueke – in his major league debut – struck out Cliff Pennington.
But Lueke ran into problems the following inning, starting when center fielder Ryan Langerhans – who had hit a second-inning home run – lost a fly ball in the sun and saw Coco Crisp wind up with a double.
“I had it right up until the very last minute,” Langerhans said. “I thought I got back deep enough to get it. But I’ve got to get my hand up there a little sooner to block out the sun. I didn’t think it was going to get through there the way it did, but it got through. I’ve got to make that play.”
Two walks later, the bases were loaded with one out when Hideki Matsui hit a soft blooper to right field that dropped between Ichiro and a charging Jack Wilson.
That opened the floodgates, as David Pauley replaced Lueke and promptly hit a batter and walked another to force home a pair. Kevin Kouzmanoff hit a sacrifice fly after that to bring home the inning’s fourth run.
It was a startling reversal for a Mariners team that had jumped all over a mistake-prone A’s squad earlier this series.
Oakland committed seven errors in the three games and could have been charged with a few more. The A’s began Sunday’s game with first baseman Daric Barton dropping a foul pop-up behind first base with a runner on and Figgins at the plate.
But instead of capitalizing, as they did so often the first two games, the Mariners watched Figgins strike out on the next pitch, and they had stranded a pair by the time the inning ended. And even though they took a 1-0 lead in the following inning, on the Langerhans home run off Gonzalez, the Mariners never really enjoyed the kind of sustained offensive surge that had carried them the previous two nights.
One reason was that the A’s stopped giving them extra outs. And when the Mariners needed a big hit, especially in that seventh inning, they couldn’t come up with one.
“You know, that’s baseball,” Wedge said. “That’s the difference between winning and losing a ballgame. We’re up in a situation where we’ve got the tying run at second base one inning, then you’re down by four or five the next inning. Those moments are usually the difference, particularly late in the ballgame.”