DETROIT — Miguel Olivo took some shots while standing at the plate, then another while crouched behind it.
The blows delivered with his bat in his first two-homer game in two years Sunday afternoon didn’t feel nearly as fierce to the Mariners catcher as the one he caught square between the legs on a late foul tip while playing defense. But though he “felt like throwing up” the final two innings, Olivo emerged from this 7-3 win over the Detroit Tigers much like his team did on this trip.
A little battered, slightly weary, but ready to fight another day.
“That game was more important than anything,” Olivo said. “We lost two games here and two in Chicago before that. So, winning today, we tied the series here. So, it was a big thing for us.”
Tied it the Mariners did against the first-place Tigers in front of a hostile crowd of 31,572 at Comerica Park in one of the grittier games Seattle has played all season. The Mariners entered the finale of their seven-day trip knowing the difference between a 3-4 record and 2-5 could mean more psychologically than just one game in the standings.
And in the end, they prevailed. Despite all the tribulations of the trip, they did not lose ground to Texas in the American League West standings, moving back to the same 1 1/2 games behind the Rangers they were when this road journey began. Seattle is 18-2 since April 26 when scoring four or more runs.
The Mariners got the man-sized performance they needed out of Felix Hernandez after a tough start, watching him go eight tough innings on 126 pitches with Olivo coaxing him through it from behind the plate. Hernandez didn’t have his sinker early, falling behind 2-0, but found his heart in the nick of time to keep things close enough for Olivo to take over.
Olivo’s first homer, a solo shot in the fifth off Rick Porcello, gave the Mariners life. His second blast, a two-run job on a change-up from Joaquin Benoit in the eighth, gave Hernandez a 5-2 lead and needed breathing room.
And then, just as the Tigers were entertaining a comeback in the eighth — putting the first two runners on — Olivo fought off the pain of the foul tip and somehow blocked an 0-2 pitch in the dirt to secure a key strikeout on Andy Dirks. Justin Smoak then put it away with a two-run homer in the ninth.
“Behind the plate, he’s tough,” Hernandez said of Olivo. “He wants to win every game. With his bat, he helps a lot, too.”
Hernandez needed help at the plate on a day he walked five batters, couldn’t command his sinker and had thrown 57 pitches once the third inning was done. The Mariners seemed somewhat out of it before Olivo greeted Porcello with his homer on a hanging curve to start the fifth.
“He’s such a professional and he takes such professional at-bats,” said Brendan Ryan, who had three hits and turned two tough double plays with Jack Wilson. “He may not barrel the ball up every time, nobody does. But he’s battling. When he gets two strikes, he’s not mailing in at-bats.”
Ryan agreed that the first home run “kind of woke us up a bit.”
Chone Figgins reached on a walk that same inning, stole second and scored on a single to left by Ichiro that tied the game.
Moments later, Ryan laid down his first drag bunt single since 2009 to move Ichiro to second and Smoak blooped a single between two fielders to put Seattle ahead. Hernandez was a different pitcher after that, tightening up his pitch count and not allowing the Tigers a shot at getting back in it.
“It matters,” Ryan said of how the game turned on Olivo’s homer. “Every at-bat, every out matters. I want to be in the hunt come September, because that’s fun baseball.”
On Olivo’s second homer, he called time out just as Benoit delivered a first-pitch fastball. At that point, Olivo figured Benoit wouldn’t show him the fastball again and sat back and waited for the change-up that followed.
“He’s a student of the game,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s a veteran guy that has shown me the ability to make adjustments whether at the plate or behind the plate. And with his strength and passion, that takes him a long way and helps us a great deal.”
The Mariners were held to one run in four of the seven games on the trip. But Wedge said his players were encouraging each other in the dugout when down 2-0 and that the Olivo homer “broke the barrier.”
Wedge had spoken pregame about how badly he wanted a win Sunday.
“I just felt like these guys have been really battling,” he said afterward. “They’ve been working so hard and we’re playing two teams that are playing pretty good baseball — good teams, in their backyard. And to get one in Chicago and split here, I think it says a lot about our guys. This is something they should feel real good about as they head back home.”