The top of the eighth and ninth innings went so quickly and quietly Sunday afternoon at the Kingdome, you could have sworn the biggest hole in the Mariners’ bullpen mysteriously had been filled overnight.
Six batters up. Six batters down.
Bob Wells made his closing debut look easy, tossing 2-1/3 perfect innings at the Kansas City Royals, securing a 5-4 Mariners victory and keeping them one-half game ahead of the Anaheim Angels in the American League West.
Already at wit’s end trying to figure out how to protect late-inning leads, manager Lou Piniella turned to someone without a save on his major-league resume. Wells, a journeyman right-hander from Yakima, picked up a save that lifted the entire team.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a one-two-three ninth inning,” right fielder Jay Buhner said. “It couldn’t have come at a better time, especially after what happened to us (Saturday night).”
The Royals, who erased a six-run deficit the previous night, scoring five runs in the eighth inning and four in the ninth, were threatening to pull out another come-from-behind victory Sunday when Chili Davis’ three-run homer off Jamie Moyer pulled Kansas City within one run in the seventh inning. It rekindled memories of Saturday night’s crushing defeat.
But Wells sauntered in from the bullpen armed with a tourniquet, protecting a lead the Mariners built against long-time nemesis Kevin Appier. The Royals right-hander entered the series finale with a 10-2 career record against the M’s and hadn’t lost to them in five years.
Thanks to Wells and just enough offense, that streak is history.
“It was nice to go out, pitch well and help the team,” said Wells, seemingly less impressed with what he did than those sharing the same clubhouse.
“He stepped up and showed us something at a time when we really needed it,” left fielder Jose Cruz Jr. said. “He was awesome.”
They might not have been the most important two innings Wells has pitched for the Mariners, but the timing couldn’t have been much better.
Piniella said he hopes Wells’ effort has a carryover effect in the bullpen, which has blown 14 save opportunities this season and sent out a help-wanted distress signal.
“We needed this,” Piniella said. “When you get one or two pitchers out there pitching well, then all of a sudden you get three or four. Before you know it, the whole thing turns around. It relaxes everybody.”
Though Wells’ perfect outing stopped the bullpen bleeding, it doesn’t mean the Mariners will stop shopping for relief help. Efforts still are being made to add a left-hander and someone who can handle the closing duties.
What it does mean is Wells will get more opportunities to close games.
Told that this was Wells’ first career save, Piniella said, “He’ll probably get chances for more.”
The key for Wells was challenging the hitters, striking out three. He threw 30 pitches. Nineteen were strikes.
“The biggest thing for a closer is to come in, throw strikes and go after the hitters,” Piniella said. “That’s what he did.”
It is something Wells has been doing for three consecutive appearances. He tossed two scoreless innings July 12 against the Texas Rangers, followed by a sparkling 5-2/3 inning effort against the Minnesota Twins Thursday night - allowing two hits and one run - and an even better outing Sunday.
“He’s throwing the ball the way he did early last year,” Piniella said.
There is zip on Wells’ fastball and he’s locating it in the strike zone.
His ERA has dipped from 7.59 to 6.00.
Wells’ flashy finish enabled Moyer to join Randy Johnson as a double-digit winner. Moyer (10-3) shrugged off a shaky first inning, when the Royals scored a run and had runners on second and third with one out, and stymied Kansas City on three more hits through the sixth inning.
The Mariners took the lead for good in the third inning, scoring runs on Dan Wilson’s single to right field and an infield out. Paul Sorrento’s 19th homer of the season padded the margin to 3-1 in the fourth. Buhner and Wilson delivered run-scoring hits in the fifth off Appier.
But the 42,816 fans squirmed when Shane Halter and Jay Bell singled back-to-back with two outs in the seventh. Then Davis unloaded his 16th homer of the season.
But instead of experiencing an instant replay of Saturday night, the Royals stumbled to their 12th loss in their past 13 road games.
The Mariners, meanwhile, embark on their longest road trek of the season, flying to Raleigh, N.C. for an exhibition game against the Southern League All-Stars tonight in Zebulon, N.C.
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