Winning In The Ninth Versus Losing In The Ninth


The Seattle Mariners are halfway through their series with the Boston Red Sox, and so far the results have continued an early-season trend of games being decided by one run. The final in game one was 2-1, and that was the score again last night, too. The Mariners have a signature, and it’s the one-run game. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that this just happened.

But the similarities go even deeper, as both of these games were tied 1-1 going into the ninth inning. Both of these games turned on non-plays by non-left fielders. Both were keyed by shaky late relief performances. Except one of these games the Mariners lost, and one of them they won.

Out of two opportunities to convert late ties into late wins, the M’s went one for one, with the other chance ending up as a hasty and deflating loss. Due to the similarity of the games and the relatively massive importance of this series on the team’s morale, it’s worth looking at how these ends were met, and what it says about the way we react as fans.

On Thursday night closer Fernando Rodney came into the game to pitch the ninth. Carson Smith had just finished turning in a sterling inning, and now it was up to Rodney to keep it tied so that the M’s could have an easy chance at a walk-off. Whether or not Lloyd McClendon should have used Rodney when he did is another question, and more or less irrelevant given that that’s what he did. Rodney pitched, and the M’s felt the consequences.

Brock Holt led off with a double. Xander Bogaerts sac bunted him to third, and then Rodney plunked Pablo Sandoval. A Mookie Betts sac fly scored the run, though perhaps there was a chance that Rickie Weeks could have made the throw home had he not dropped the ball. Converted infielders, man. After loading the bases with a two-out walk, Rodney finally retired his third batter of the inning. The M’s went down one-two-three in the ninth and fell to four games under .500.

Four games under means four wins away, but for a team that came into the day needing four wins to get above that mark it felt at first like a death sentence. It’s early, yes, and we’re a species prone to overreaction, yes, but there’s a growing sense of urgency with this team. Keep losing one-run games because of bad relief and before you know it, you’ve got yourselves a new, unwanted identity. Certainly not an unearned one, and that would indicate a bad team. Which is what we so desperately hope these Mariners are not.

Whether or not it should’ve been, last night’s game felt almost like a must-win. Clay Buchholz was dominating the M’s, pitching like his peripherals said he was supposed to pitch, but J.A. Happ kept the home team in it for seven innings. Even as Buchholz refused to bend, Tom Wilhelmsen came in and kept runs off the board. Seth Smith‘s solo shot gave the M’s the one run they needed to tie things up. It was going to come down to the ninth, or later, once again.

With Buccholz at 102 pitches, it was Tommy Layne time for Boston. Imagine the feel at this point – one of “weren’t we just here?” Except that the top of the ninth had gone well enough, with Wilhelmsen working around a leadoff single to set the Sox down. I’d bet that a majority of the fans watching were resigned to devastation. Even though you’ve never heard of Tommy Layne, you knew he was going to shut the Mariners down. This is a team with lots of kryptonite.

Except Brad Miller singled, and advanced to second on a Robinson Cano grounder. That prompted John Farrell to pull Layne for Junichi Tazawa. With a good runner at second base and the AL’s leading hitter at the plate, there was a glimmer. Still not enough to warrant outright optimism, what with two outs and all, but enough to hope on.

Nelson Cruz fought through a called first strike and let two balls pass. He swung through one, then took a low ball three. He connected with the count full and drove the ball to left, where Hanley Ramirez kind of half-heartedly jogged toward the track and then stopped completely when it became clear he wasn’t going to make the catch. Like with Weeks the night before, there was probably no play even if he did try his hardest. But he didn’t, and the Mariners were walk-off winners.

And now, at three games under and 6.5 back, we’re talking about the next two games with excitement and not downright desperation. The season isn’t ending – the season is brand new! The Mariners, just like everyone else in MLB (except the Phillies, and the Brewers, and the Rockies) are something that at least looks like it could be a contender. We’re renewed. The M’s won one late and exciting! How cool is that?! It could happen again, you know. It could become some kind of a regular thing.

Wins feel better than losses. That you knew, and the last two nights don’t exactly change the way we view the world. But think about how you felt going to bed Thursday versus how you felt Friday. It was just a matter of a few swings, but it felt like so much more. Winning in the ninth last night versus losing in the ninth the night before felt huge. It was only minorly different than what had so recently happened, but it provided a big old punch of perspective. In mid-May, sometimes perspective is all we need.

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