SEATTLE – The matchup Sunday clearly didn’t favor the Seattle Mariners – Jason Vargas against Philadelphia Phillies left-hander/All-Star/World Series hero Cole Hamels.
But, as pitchers are fond of saying, Vargas didn’t actually face Hamels.
He had to pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies, and that wasn’t so inviting either, considering they had baseball’s best record and, less than a day earlier, had harassed Mariners ace Felix Hernandez into a loss.
But Vargas survived a few dicey moments in the early innings and finished with the Mariners’ pitching masterpiece of the season, a complete-game 2-0 victory over the Phillies.
He held the Phillies to three singles, bloops to center field by Ryan Howard in the first and ninth innings and a bouncer into left field by Ben Francisco in the fourth. Until Howard’s single with two outs in the ninth, Vargas had retired 15 straight Phillies.
“Our foul balls might have been our hardest hits all day,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.
Vargas, 5-4 with a 3.75 earned run average, has more than shown his solid season in 2010 (9-12, 3.78), wasn’t a one-time thing. He has two complete-game shutouts, both this month, and another nine shutout innings May 12 at Baltimore when he got a no-decision.
“He’s done this all year,” said first baseman Justin Smoak, whose bloop single off Hamels in the sixth inning drove home Ichiro Suzuki to break a scoreless tie. “And to do this against a lineup like that, that’s huge.”
Vargas was sharp from the start but had to pick up his defense to escape first-inning trouble. He’d recorded two quick outs and seemed to have a third when Chase Utley swung through a pitch for strike three, but Miguel Olivo barely got a glove on it and Utley reached first on a passed ball. Howard followed with his bloop single to center field to put runners on first and second and Olivo let another pitch get to the backstop – ruled a wild pitch – that let both runners advance.
Francisco followed with another fly ball with eyes, a soft pop to shallow left field where Mariners left fielder Greg Halman made a running catch for the third out.
After a two-on, one-out jam in the fourth when third baseman Chone Figgins turned Carlos Ruiz’s soft liner into a double play, Vargas settled in by mixing his curveball with his fastball and changeup, throwing all of them for strikes.
The Phillies didn’t have a baserunner the next four innings, and there was no question that Mariners manager Eric Wedge would send Vargas back to the mound in the ninth. By then, he had a 2-0 lead after Dustin Ackley tripled and Adam Kennedy singled in the seventh.
But Vargas had to navigate the toughest part of the Phillies’ lineup – Shane Victorino, Utley and Howard – to complete his finest game. He got Victorino and Utley on fly outs to center field, but Howard’s bloop single to center pushed the anxiety level up a notch.
Wedge sensed it and, with Brandon League warming in the bullpen and Francisco preparing to bat, he bolted from the dugout to the mound.
“We had Leaguer ready for that matchup,” Wedge said. “I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do, but I wanted to go out there and look (Vargas) in the eye as well. It was his ballgame.”
Wedge told Vargas to maintain his focus and finish the game. Then he jogged back to the dugout, getting a loud ovation from most in the sellout crowd of 45,462.
“That was the first time I’ve had a manager come out in the ninth and leave me in,” Vargas said.
Among those gathered ’round the mound for Wedge’s visit was shortstop Brendan Ryan, who sensed some serious intensity from the manager.
“For Wedgie to come out there with those crazy eyes and say, ‘I’m sticking with you! Let’s get this done!’, that was awesome,” Ryan said. “That’s great stuff from a manager. He wants to push guys.”
Three pitches later, Francisco flied out to center, ending a M’s game that might carry more weight than simply one victory among their 37 this season.
It pulled them within a half-game of A.L. West-leading Texas, gave them a series win against the Phillies and, according to Wedge, injected a dose of confidence into a Mariners team that’s believing it can play like this regularly.
“It’s another series they should derive a great deal of confidence from,” Wedge said. “They’re tough, they’ve shown up to play all year long, they’ve been pulling for each other, they’ve got good energy, good focus and they’re good workers.
“They’re starting to show us that they can dig deep when they need to. You’ve got to do that.”