ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – When he stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the ninth, Johnny Damon briefly contemplated bunting to “set the table for Longo (Evan Longoria, the next hitter).”
Damon rejected that idea, and then ejected the first pitch he saw from Mariners reliever Dan Cortes right out of Tropicana Field.
The Damon homer necessitated another in a long line of dejected trudges off the field for the Mariners, who fell 8-7 in a wild game Sunday that wrapped up a three-game sweep for the Rays.
The Mariners, after blowing leads of 4-0 and 5-2, had tied it at 7-all in the eighth on a two-run homer by Wily Mo Pena, his first as a Mariner. Pena unloaded on a hanging curve by Rays starter James Shields and sent a prodigious blast to left-center.
“You’re hoping they’d leave one up for him, and obviously, he’s as strong as anyone in the game,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Then, in the bottom of the eighth, Cortes narrowly escaped giving up the go-ahead run when, with the bases loaded and Damon at the plate, a curveball slipped out of his hands and sailed past catcher Josh Bard. Matt Joyce raced home from third, but Bard tossed to Cortes, who tagged out Joyce.
“That’s a one-in-a-million play,” Bard said. “The ball bounced straight back to me. That’s nothing you can really practice. Danny made a nice, athletic play to make the tag.”
The upshot, though, was that Damon was back at the plate to start the ninth after the Mariners went down in order in the top of the inning.
Wedge elected to hold out closer Brandon League to use in a potential save situation in extra innings. He left in Cortes, who had thrown 23 pitches in 12/3 innings, before fateful No. 24 to Damon.
“There were only a few options,” Wedge said. “Obviously, we were going to stay away from League until we get the lead on the road. … Danny was still throwing the ball good.”
But that characterization ended with the lone pitch to Damon, who earlier in the game, in the seventh, had seemingly hit a grand slam, only to have it changed to a three-run double after a replay review by the umpires. The ball had actually hit the top of the screen above the right-field wall, making it still in play.
Damon’s game-winner, deep into the right-field bleachers, didn’t need any review. It was clear-cut, and Damon was greeted by all the exuberant Rays, celebrating their fifth straight win. The Mariners have lost five straight.
“I was looking for a strike, and the first one I saw, I was going to jerk something,” Damon said.
Or, as Bard put it: “Right there, Johnny’s not stupid. He’s looking to be aggressive. You’ve got a guy throwing really hard. He just threw a curveball 3 feet over my head.”
“A lot of credit to him. He was ready to hit. He got a fastball down the middle, and he did what he was supposed to do with it. But I think Danny should come away from today feeling like he’s making some positive steps.”
Cortes may take awhile to come around to that conclusion.
“He looked like he was ready to hack,” Cortes said of Damon. “It’s going to be on my mind the rest of the night. I’ll sleep on it, move on to the next day, and just learn from that, and carry that over to the next outing.”
On the list of bright spots for the Mariners was the fifth homer in seven games from Casper Wells, a double by Mike Carp in the third that extended his hitting streak to 20 games, and, especially, a strong outing from rookie starter Michael Pineda.
Pineda limited the Rays to six hits and three runs – one of them unearned – in six innings, striking out five. Pineda threw 94 pitches.
Relief pitchers Jamey Wright and Jeff Gray gave up four runs in the seventh to take away the lead Pineda had left and deny him his 10th victory. Pineda hasn’t won since July 30, against the Rays.