SEATTLE — There was a lot more for the Mariners to lose in this current stretch of home games than there was for them to win.
But the types of series that ended with a Mariners sweep of the Minnesota Twins on Sunday and another upcoming with the Cleveland Indians are exactly the “trap” games that have proved Seattle’s downfall in the past. Instead, the Mariners used the resurgent bats of Michael Saunders and Dustin Ackley to beat the Twins 5-1 on Sunday and capitalize as expected against the league’s worst team.
The Mariners managed to avoid beating themselves in all three games — despite stumbling at times — and have now worked their way back to .500 at a home ballpark that hasn’t always been kind.
“I feel like we were putting too much pressure on ourselves here,” Saunders said after his two-run homer in the seventh off former Seattle teammate Jeff Gray broke open a one-run game. “Now, I feel like we’re starting to do a better job here of hitting the ball.”
The Mariners have won five in a row overall and 12 of 13 at Safeco Field after spending much of the year with baseball’s worst home record. A crowd of 22,635 saw the Mariners spend most of Sunday struggling to score against Twins starter Samuel Deduno — who walked six and hit Saunders with a pitch over his six innings — before breaking through for three in the seventh against newly-installed reliever Gray.
After a leadoff double by Ackley, Saunders drove a 1-0 pitch over the right-field wall. Eric Thames later doubled in another run as the Mariners capped the sweep against a Twins squad that squandered chances to score all series.
Ackley finished the day with two hits, had six in the series and has 10 in his last five contests after having batted .220 to that point.
“He’s spraying the ball all over the place,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s hitting different types of pitches. Dustin looks like he’s a little more balanced up there, which is going to allow him to see the ball better as well.”
Blake Beavan allowed a plethora of early runners, but only one run on a double by Josh Willingham and an ensuing sacrifice fly by Trevor Plouffe in the second inning.
“I just focused on making a pitch,” Beavan said. “I think that’s what I’ve been struggling at when I get into those games where it’s one (bad) inning, it’s just kind of letting things snowball So, that’s what I tried to do, execute one pitch and try to go from there. Get them to put the ball on the ground.”
The early damage against Beavan was erased in the third. An erratic Deduno walked John Jaso to force home the tying run and gave up the go-ahead marker on a double-play grounder by Jesus Montero.
Seattle stranded 11 runners to nine for the Twins, who had the bases loaded with one out in the top of the sixth with the score still 2-1. But Carter Capps rallied to strike out Matt Carson and then got Pedro Florimon to fly out to end the threat.
Josh Kinney came on with two out in the seventh and got Josh Willingham to fly out with the tying run on second base. Kinney worked another two scoreless innings to pick up the first save of his career.
Minnesota went 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position after going 2 for 12 on Saturday.
The Mariners have been known to lose games like these to less-than-stellar opponents the past few seasons. But throughout this second-half surge, the Mariners have taken full advantage of weak or struggling teams from Kansas City, Toronto and Minnesota.
Seattle’s 13-1 combined record against those three squads the past month, coupled with winning some close series against Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Angels, has enabled the Mariners to go 22-13 since the All-Star break — the second-best mark in the league. Now, with three games against an incoming Cleveland squad that’s compiled just a .278 second-half winning percentage, the Mariners have an opportunity to significantly upgrade their record before hitting the road again.
“We kind of are expecting to win and we’ve had a lot of fun doing it,” Saunders said. “Even the games that we lose, we’re holding our heads high.”
Saunders went 5 for 12 in this series after batting just .190 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .512 since the break.
“I was certainly struggling there for a little while,” Saunders said. “I felt like I just had to get back to basics. I felt like I was trying too hard, I was overswinging. Sort of doing more than I was capable of doing.
“So, I went back to ground zero and started back with the basics. I just tried to stay easy up there and try not to do too much.”
Sort of like the Mariners need to do against some of these floundering clubs. In many cases, they’ll come out on top simply by sticking to the basics and not beating themselves.