CHICAGO – To a man, the Mariners want their fans to believe there is something different about this year’s team. One way to convince skeptics might be carrying out a little first-week exorcism inside their personal House of Horrors otherwise known as U.S. Cellular Field.
Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen understood the stakes Friday night as he fought to prevent a late meltdown in the 10th inning and held on for an 8-7 win over the Chicago White Sox.
Wilhelmsen was throwing his curveball all over the place and walking guys left and right, yet managed to strike out Tyler Flowers with the bases loaded and prevent a repeat of the late-game heartbreak so common here for Mariners teams.
“In a game like that, you’ve just got to buckle down and keep fighting,’’ Wilhelmsen said. “You can’t lose that game.’’
But the Mariners have lost those games in this ballpark before. A crowd of 15,312 seemed to sense another victory being snatched from the Mariners by the home side on a frigid night with the game-time temperature at 34 degrees – tied for the coldest start to a Mariners game in 25 years.
The salivating fans could sense a pending Mariners collapse after the White Sox began overcoming a 6-1, fifth-inning deficit on home runs by Alejandro De Aza and Alex Rios and later tied the score in the seventh.
They sensed it even after the Mariners scored twice in the 10th on a Kendrys Morales double and a Jesus Montero single to take a two-run lead. And they kept on sensing it as an erratic Wilhelmsen gave up a run in the bottom of the frame on a Dewayne Wise single, then walked Alexei Ramirez to load the bases.
And few could blame the fans for feeling that way. They’d already seen the Mariners squander an advantage held since the very first at-bat of the game, when Franklin Gutierrez took White Sox starter Jose Quintana over the right-field wall for his second leadoff home run this week. They’d seen Mariners starter Blake Beavan, who retired 11 of his first 12 batters without allowing a hit, give back most of a five-run, fifth inning that had come courtesy of a two-run double by Gutierrez and a run-scoring triple from Michael Saunders.
So, when Wilhelmsen could no longer throw a strike, most naturally assumed that the Mariners were about to find a way to lose for the 20th time in their last 23 games played here.
“I mean, I threw some curveballs today that were in the other batter’s box,’’ Wilhelmsen said. But despite all that, he wouldn’t allow himself a repeat of blown games past at this park by M’s closers, set-up men and starters alike.
“It was just bear-down time, really,’’ Wilhelmsen said of his three-pitch strikeout of Flowers. “That’s something, I guess, that you’ve just got to find in yourself.”