ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The term that manager Eric Wedge kept using after Thursday’s 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, the Mariners’ sixth straight defeat, was “getting over the hump.”
He sees a young team that lost four games by a total of five runs against a strong Rays ballclub as being on the verge of competing against the game’s best.
But he’s also realistic enough to know they are having too many maddening breakdowns at key junctures.
The upshot is that some changes could be in the wind for the Mariners. The obvious focus is on the leadoff spot, where Chone Figgins is mired in a slump that has seen his average drop to .189 after Thursday’s 0 for 4. Figgins is hitless in his past 19 at-bats and was 4 for 31 (.129) on the 10-game trip. He has struck out 28 times in 95 at-bats.
“It’s tough to produce in the middle when you’re not doing what you need to do up top,” Wedge said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. We’re a month into this now in a few more days. We’ll continue to look at everything, like we always do.”
Certainly, Figgins’ continued presence in the leadoff spot is in jeopardy. Whether the Mariners would cut Figgins — who is still owed the remainder of $9 million this year, plus $8 million next year — is becoming a pertinent question.
Figgins said he feels “great” at the plate.
“I’m taking some aggressive hacks. I’m just not having anything to show for it,” he said. “Sometimes it gets me in trouble, being too aggressive, going out of the zone. But like I said, I just feel good. I can’t get anything going, but honestly it’s the best I’ve felt in a while.”
The last two nights, Figgins has faced two starting pitchers, James Shields and Jeff Niemann, against whom he had a career .419 average (18 for 43) and still couldn’t get a hit.
“When I’m hitting, squaring some balls up, I’m driving some balls, which is good,” he said. “Then there’s times when I’m a little too aggressive, so I’ve got to go back to finding that middle ground.
“You’d rather not feel good and get hits. It’s a good thing to feel good, but there’s still that borderline between being aggressive and too aggressive.”
Struggling shortstop Brendan Ryan, whose average has dropped to .125 with a 0-for-26 slump, was on the bench Thursday. Wedge said the team needs to get him going.
“He’s taken away more runs at shortstop than anyone in the game,” he said. “That’s real. You can’t get away from that. With what we saw this spring from him, what we saw at times in the past year, that’s real, too, offensively. If you get a guy that can defend himself at home plate, and just be even borderline average, you have a championship-level shortstop, without a doubt.”
For the Mariners, the depressing story of this trip’s painful detour — they had won the first four games — was written (or, more accurately, rewritten) in the sixth inning.
Trailing by a run, they got a leadoff double from John Jaso, a promising start to what could have been an uplifting rally. But the next three hitters — Mike Carp, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders — each struck out.
Jaso died at third (after a wild pitch), and the Mariners’ hopes of salvaging a game against the Rays eventually died, too.
“You’ve got to get him over,” Wedge said. “I’m giving our guys a chance to do that because they have to learn to do that. You don’t always want to give up … In certain situations, you’re not just looking to bunt the ball. We work on it every day. They have to make sure it translates to the baseball game.”
As they had the night before, the Mariners jumped ahead early but couldn’t hold on. They scored two in the second, and the best part was it didn’t take a home run to do it. They came home on a ground out by Carp and a single by Smoak, ending a streak of 13 consecutive runs scored by the Mariners via homers.
But Kevin Millwood, still looking for his first Mariners win after five starts, couldn’t hold the lead, giving up four runs in the bottom of the inning, runs that held up.
Millwood got two quick outs before it fell apart, though he nearly got out of it. On a hard grounder by Will Rhymes, third baseman Kyle Seager made a great diving stop to his left, but his throw pulled Smoak off the bag.
The Rays showed why they have won 10 of 11 games and were tied for the majors’ best record. Jeff Keppinger crushed a two-run homer to left to tie the game, and after two more singles, Desmond Jennings tripled to right-center for two more.
“That’s a play that changes the whole outcome,” Seager said. “We get out of that inning … that’s a play I’d have liked to have made.”