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Mariners claw back from early deficit to sweep A’s and gain ground in the wild-card hunt

Seattle Mariners' Dylan Moore, from left, celebrates with J.P. Crawford, Ty France and Abraham Toro after the Mariners defeated the Oakland Athletics in a baseball game in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021.  (Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

OAKLAND, Calif. – They couldn’t win if the game was lost in the first four innings. They couldn’t consider coming back if the three-run deficit continued to grow the longer Yusei Kikuchi remained in the game.

And if the Mariners’ postseason hopes depend on it five days from now, they’ll have to consider whether they want to take the risk starting the unpredictable left-hander against the A’s again.

In a game where manager Scott Servais seemed to make every right choice, including having Luis Torrens pinch-hit in the sixth inning with the result being a go-ahead homer and pushing right-hander Casey Sadler for an extra inning of work after a scoreless sixth, the decision to pull an ineffective and erratic Kikuchi after three forgettable innings allowed the Mariners to begin the process of rallying for a 6-5 come-from-behind victory over the Oakland A’s.

The Mariners have now won five straight games and completed a rare four-game sweep of their American League West rivals. They didn’t eliminate Oakland from the race for a wild-card spot with the sweep, but the damage they inflicted to the A’s postseason hopes is likely irreparable.

With nine games left on their schedule, the Mariners (84-69) moved to within two games of the Yankees (86-67), who occupy the second wild card spot and were idle on Thursday. Seattle will head to Anaheim to open a three-game series with the Angels, starting Friday evening.

The Blue Jays, who came into Thursday a half-game back of New York, opened a four-game series with the Twins. The reeling A’s (82-71) dropped two games back of Seattle.

The Mariners are 6-1 on the current 10-game road trip and finished the season with an 8-1 record in Oakland.

“Wow, some kind of series,” Servais said. “I’ve said many times when this trip started the focus was on winning series and maybe along the way we catch a few breaks and we sweep somebody. That’s exactly what happened here in Oakland. It’s a really good team over there.”

Even before Kikuchi slogged his way through the first three innings, a victory seemed unlikely coming into the game. The Mariners’ All-Star in the first half, he’s been all-abysmal in the second half of the season with only a sporadic handful of decent starts that provided hope but no sustained success.

And it became evident the Mariners got the suboptimal version of Kikuchi on a sun-drenched and unseasonably warm Thursday afternoon. After retiring the first two batters in the first inning, Kikuchi walked the next two before getting the final out.

It got progressively worse from there.

A leadoff walk in the second inning turned into a 1-0 lead for Oakland with a single and sacrifice line drive from Elvis Andrus. And a one-out walk in the third inning was followed by a missile of a run-scoring double to center off the bat of Yan Gomes and an RBI single to left from Mark Canha.

With the A’s leading 3-0, Servais had Yohan Ramirez warming in the bullpen.

When Kikuchi got out of the third by striking out Matt Chapman and Chad Pinder, it appeared he might at least start the fourth inning.

But after Abraham Toro cut the lead to 3-1 with a two-out RBI double off James Kaprielian in the top of the fourth, Servais decided to shorten the game.

“If it would have stayed 3-0, I probably would have ran Yusei back out there,” Servais said. “I thought if we could score a run that inning, it was about trying to change the momentum of the game. I thought Yusei certainly was struggling command-wise. It just had a bad feel to it. Sometimes you need to do something to change the momentum.”

Was that Kikuchi’s last start of the season? If the Mariners are still in the wild-card race five days from now, will they send him out there to start again in a must-win situation? If you wouldn’t trust him to start a postseason game, would you trust him to start a game vital to reaching the postseason for the first time in 20 years?

“We won’t get ahead of ourselves,” Servais said. “We’ve got work to do over in Anaheim and see how that series goes over there. We need help. We need some other teams to lose that are up in front of us right now. But we’re doing what we can do, focusing on our games and winning our games. If we get to that point, we’ll talk about it and look at it. But there’s nothing to talk about right now.”

It might not be something for Servais to talk about with the media, but in terms of preparing for the possibilities, it’s something that general manager Jerry Dipoto is certainly talking about with his baseball operation staff right now. It’s not something they can just wait and see on unless they just go with lefty Justus Sheffield, who has been relegated to the bullpen after returning from injuries and struggles, to make that start.

“I’m not going to be caught up worrying about that,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I haven’t been told anything as of yet, but I would respect whatever decision they make because of the situation the team is in. I’m just going to focus on being ready for my next start.”

After replacing Kikuchi, Ramirez allowed a first-pitch homer to Sean Murphy to start the fourth. But Oakland didn’t score again till the ninth inning when Seattle held a two-run lead. Matt Olson clubbed his 38th homer of the season, a two-out solo shot off Paul Sewald. Sewald got Jed Lowrie to pop out for his 10th save.

The comeback started immediately with Cal Raleigh’s two-run homer in the fifth to cut the lead to 4-3.

In the sixth facing lefty Jake Diekman, Mitch Haniger tied the game with a leadoff homer to right field. It was his 35th of the season.

After a walk to Jarred Kelenic, Servais called on Torrens to pinch-hit for the left-handed hitting Jake Fraley. Torrens hammered an inside fastball into the left-field seats for the lead.