Seattle Mariners' Eric Thames smiles after being hit with a shaving cream pie after batting the winning run in the bottom of the ninth against Tampa Bay Rays winning the baseball game 3-2 in Seattle on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Kevin P. Casey)
SEATTLE — In far more cases than folks realize, walkoff games often aren’t won in the final at-bat, but in those taken by the losing team in the innings prior.
And in this 3-2 walkoff win by the Mariners in the ninth inning on Tuesday night, Kevin Millwood and friends gave the Tampa Bay Rays some at-bats they’ll long remember. Millwood walked a tightrope from the first inning onward, yet pulled it together long enough to hold the Rays scoreless after that opening frame.
Then, in the ninth, a costly throwing error by Carlos Pena gave the Mariners the offensive opening Millwood had fought all night to keep them around for.
“It seemed like every inning, something would happen and I’d get guys on,” Millwood said. “It felt like I’d never have an easy inning and that tends to wear on you as the game moves along. If all you’re looking at is results, it’s pretty good. But to get to those results wasn’t very easy.”
It wasn’t easy for the Mariners to even score a run. They’d managed one off Rays starter Matt Moore in the second inning when Justin Smoak and Miguel Olivo hit back-to-back doubles, then spent the rest of the night trailing 2-1.
Until, that is, Kyle Seager opened the ninth with a single off Rays closer Fernando Rodney, setting the stage for a Chone Figgins bunt that would set in motion an end to Tampa Bay’s seven-game win streak. The bunt itself was nothing special, and first baseman Pena actually looked to second base before turning to make the throw to first.
But Pena double-clutched, then tried an overhand soft toss that sailed beyond the reach of covering second baseman Sean Rodriguez. The ball bounded down the line in foul territory, sending runners to second and third with nobody out.
Smoak tied it with a sacrifice fly that also sent Figgins to third base. Olivo struck out next, but then Eric Thames lined a ball just over a leaping Rodriguez for a game-winning single that sent the crowd of 17,065 at Safeco Field into celebration.
“After that first fastball, I knew he was going to come all splits,” said Thames, who initially was down 0-2 in the count. “I’d faced him a lot with Toronto, so I knew he was going to throw low and away, so I just sat in that zone and tried to hit through it. I got a piece of it and got enough of it to get it over Rodriguez.”
Smoak had been watching out for the tough changeup he knows Rodney can throw. Earlier in the game, he’d nearly hit a Moore changeup out of the park on a fly ball caught at the warning track.
“I was trying to get a changeup or a pitch up,” Smoak said of the plate appearance in the ninth. “I laid off the first one, then got a pitch to hit and got it in the air.”
In his first game back from Class AAA, Smoak was one of the only Mariners having success off Moore. The Tampa Bay rookie entered the game having gone 8-2 with a 2.93 earned-run average since June 1 and wound up dominating on nine strikeouts through seven frames — six of them from the fourth inning on.
But Smoak tagged him for the early double on a screamer past third base and down the line in his first at-bat, then later drew a walk before the near home-run miss. Smoak said the early hit helped him breathe a bit easier.
“I felt I was in a good place,” he said.
The Rays tried to give Moore added room, but Millwood kept shutting them down. Millwood trailed from the game’s first two batters on, as Desmond Jennings led off with a single and then B.J. Upton tripled past a diving Trayvon Robinson.
Evan Longoria hit a sacrifice fly soon after for a 2-0 lead.
The Rays kept trying to score more, but Millwood notched inning-ending strikeouts with a runner on second in the third and two on in the fourth and fifth. Millwood struck out Matt Joyce and Longoria in the fifth with two on.
“The bottom line is to put your team in a chance to win the ballgame,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “And he did.”