ANAHEIM, Calif. — The hope from within the Mariners is that they will eventually learn something useful from all these nights spent watching one-run defeats.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge watched from the dugout Wednesday night as a Torii Hunter walkoff single capped a 4-3 loss for Seattle in a game that likely ended the Cy Young Award chances of starting pitcher Felix Hernandez. Hunter had already tied the game in the seventh with a single off relief pitcher Josh Kinney before lining a Stephen Pryor pitch into center field to score Maicer Izturis in the ninth.
The Mariners have been continuously victimized this month by close losses against teams playing for their playoff lives. This was the third straight one-run loss for Seattle against contending clubs.
“We’ve got a lot of young kids that are going through an experience right now that’s going to help them be a better, veteran club in a couple of years,” Wedge said. “And they’ll be better for it next year. All these one-run games we’ve come up short with, we’ll win a lot of those games next year just because of their experiences and going through everything that they’ve gone through.
“In particular here in September. Every night for these teams is a playoff game. That’s the atmosphere and that’s what they’re going through. And we’re right in the mix with them and fighting all the way.”
The Angels faced another must-win game, knowing they trailed the Oakland Athletics — who had already won big at Texas — by two games in the wild-card race. They were down 3-2 to Hernandez after Justin Smoak’s third home run in two nights, in the fourth inning off Angels starter C.J. Wilson.
But Hernandez needed 44 pitches to get through the first two innings. He’d fallen behind 2-0 in the second inning, then walked two batters to load the bases — including a 12-pitch plate appearance by Chris Iannetta — before getting Hunter to first-pitch swing into a ground-ball out.
Still, the damage was done. Hernandez cruised the rest of the way — striking out nine batters — but was lifted after six innings with a pitch count of 103.
“The first two innings, I was throwing a lot of pitches and falling behind a couple of times,” Hernandez said. “But then, I found myself, I was following through to home plate and throwing more strikes.”
Hernandez said he understood Wedge’s decision to pull him after six innings, not wanting to overtax his arm in a late-season game with no meaning in the standings.
But it likely did mean something for Hernandez’s late-season efforts to salvage a Cy Young bid that seemed his to lose this time last month.
When Hunter tied the score in the seventh off Kinney, it meant Hernandez will go more than a month since his last victory — back on Aug. 27. With the Cy Young field crowded, his numbers no longer lead in any important category and his remaining start likely won’t be enough to overcome both David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and Justin Verlander of the Tigers.
Price has surged to a league-best 19-5 record and 2.56 earned-run average. Hernandez is second to Verlander with 226-2/3 innings and 216 strikeouts. But his earned-run average is now tied for fourth at 2.86.
In the ninth Wednesday, pinch-hitter Izturis reached on a single and was able to take second base on a wild pitch from Pryor that proved critical.
“I was just trying to throw a fastball down and it kind of got away from me,” Pryor said. “I gave him an extra base.”
A bunt moved Izturis to third with only one out. The Mariners then intentionally walked Mike Trout to set up a double-play, but Hunter lined the ball into the outfield to win it.
“We’ve played games like this against these teams all year,” Smoak said. “... There’s no panic button. Whether we’re down by a run or up by a run. It’s always better to come out on top, though.”
That won’t happen this year, though.
Not for the Mariners, nor, in all likelihood, their ace pitcher.