SEATTLE – There haven’t been many times over the years when the Seattle Mariners tried a six-man bullpen and didn’t yearn for an extra arm only a few games into it.
That’s the world in which the Mariners decided to operate this week, and Jason Vargas became the latest to show Wednesday night that it’s a plan that just might work.
Continuing a season-long pattern by Mariners starting pitchers, Vargas pitched deep into the game and eased the load on the relievers in a 3-0 victory over the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field.
Vargas held the Angels to four hits in seven shutout innings and got the backing of some early Mariners offense against L.A. starter Jered Weaver, his former college teammate at Long Beach State.
Jack Cust hit RBI singles in the first and third innings, and Justin Smoak added an RBI double in the second as the Mariners made a 3-0 lead work.
Vargas recorded a career-high nine strikeouts and held the Angels to four singles and two walks.
“He was about as consistent start to finish as you can ask a stating pitcher to be,” manager Eric Wedge said. “He didn’t fluctuate at all. He was in the zone all night long, expanded when he needed to, pitched ahead.”
Vargas has pitched 16 straight shutout innings in his past two starts.
“He’s in his routine now and as he works into the season, he’s been very consistent with his delivery, his arm slot and his release point, and that leads him in the right direction,” Wedge said.
He could say that about the entire Mariners starting staff, which is on such a run of deep starts that even a six-man bullpen may have a guy or two needing work if they keep pitching this way. The Mariners decided to go with one less reliever when they optioned right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen to Double-A Jackson when they activated center fielder Franklin Gutierrez from the disabled list.
Gutierrez, recently diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, had a quiet night in his first big-league game since last year, going 0 for 4 and catching one fly ball in center field.
Cust was the impact player, going 2 for 4 with the two RBIs. He still hasn’t hit a home run this season, but he has hit safely in seven of the past eight games and batted .322 in that stretch.
“Since the beginning of May, I’ve started to drive the ball a little better,” Cust said. “My start this season was not what I was hoping for, but it’s a long year. I’m just trying to get comfortable.”
About the only mistake Vargas made was a throw in the first inning. To first base.
Angels leadoff hitter Erick Aybar bounced a ball left of the mound that Vargas fielded, but his throw wasn’t anything first baseman Smoak could handle.
Aybar wound up on third after Bobby Abreu’s sacrifice bunt for the first out, but Vargas left him there.
A nine-pitch at-bat by Aybar in the seventh stretched Vargas’ pitch count, and Wedge needed the bullpen for two innings.
Jamey Wright walked Maicer Izturis to start the eighth and, after getting two outs, lost two more hitters to an infield single and walk that loaded the bases. Then he wedged himself into a full count against pinch-hitter Hank Conger before striking him out.
There was more anxiousness. Brandon League pitched the ninth.
League, who blew three saves and lost four times last week, got the first out before he walked Aybar. But before anyone’s fears became real, League got Abreu to hit into a double play to end the game. It was League’s 10th save, his first since May 3 against Texas.
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