SEATTLE — By the time the final strikeout was done, the lack of depth on this Seattle Mariners squad had been painfully exposed.
The Mariners led off the ninth against perennial all-star closer Mariano Rivera with a Kyle Seager single, but as was the case all day Saturday, they simply could not follow through. Instead, Seattle punctuated this 3-1 loss to the New York Yankees with three game-ending strikeouts by a pair of Class AAA callups and an injury-hobbled Michael Morse.
As with other defeats piling up in winnable contests for this team, the lack of offense factored prominently and was exacerbated by a midgame back injury to slugger Kendrys Morales.
“His back locked up on him,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s feeling better now. They’ve been working on him. We’ll just have to see how he feels tomorrow.”
A hefty crowd of 38,252 at Safeco Field saw a shell of the Mariners team that began the season. The lineup had already been weakened by injuries to Franklin Gutierrez and Justin Smoak, the AAA demotions of Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero and also had minor league callup catcher Brandon Bantz making his big-league debut.
Bantz was a sub-.200 hitter in AA just a few weeks ago. But he was pressed into service by Montero’s demotion, an injury to Jesus Sucre, the reluctance of the organization to call up prospect Mike Zunino, as well as the exhaustion of Kelly Shoppach from recent outings.
He did OK helping starter Joe Saunders through 61 / 3 innings with only three runs allowed. But the punchless Mariners offense also looked to have shaved 10 years off the arm of veteran Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte, who mowed through Seattle’s nine on just 85 pitches over 71 / 3 innings.
The only Mariners run came in the fourth after Jason Bay and Seager opened with singles. Both advanced on a groundout and Bay scored to tie it 1-1 on a Morse sacrifice fly, but the lack of timely hits thwarted a potential big inning.
Pettitte led 3-1 in the eighth when Nick Franklin opened with a single. Michael Saunders then worked the count to 2-0, but missed a hittable pitch and popped out to shallow right and another inning soon went nowhere.
Over the past five weeks, Saunders is hitting just .168 with an on-base-plus slugging percentage of .477. His disintegration as a hitter has further hampered an offense already overcoming its share of black holes.
Wedge has few bench options he can turn to with so many regulars ailing.
“Any team at some point in time goes through stretches like this, when you’re not at full strength,” Wedge said. “You just have to adjust to it and manage people accordingly with what you have.”
But this team’s season could effectively be over by the time the roster gets straightened out. The Mariners fell nine games under .500 on a day Joe Saunders pitched well enough to win despite having a catcher he’d never worked with.
“We talked a lot because we knew (Shoppach) couldn’t go, like, six in a row,” Saunders said. “So, we had an inkling (Bantz) was going to be in there, so that’s just the point where you’ve got to talk a lot, talk about the game and what you like to do in situations. It’s pretty much a crash course in two days of what I like to do and how he likes to call pitches.”
And the two fared well, enough that Bantz might even start again.
“There were a couple of times where we got mixed up but we were able to fix it quick and that’s what you’ve got to do,” Saunders said. “Hats off to him for his first big-league game. I thought he caught a great game and did a good job back there.”
The Yankees scraped a run together in the fifth to take a 2-1 lead. With runners at first and second, Brett Gardner hit a grounder to shortstop for a potential inning-ending double play.
But second baseman Franklin dropped the ball on the hurried transfer to his throwing hand and recorded just a lone out at second, with Ichiro taking third. Jayson Nix hit a two-out single to right and the Yanks were up to stay.
“It was a slow ground ball and Gardner’s a pretty fast runner,” Franklin said. “So it was do-or-die and, I can’t take very long or he’s going to beat it out.”
Gardner doubled in the seventh to end Saunders’ day and later scored on a Nix single off Danny Farquhar.
In the ninth, after striking out Alex Liddi — who’d replaced Morales — and Morse, Rivera pitched carefully around the experienced Raul Ibanez with Franklin on deck. Ibanez walked to put two on, but Rivera fanned Franklin on three pitches, eating him up inside with his trademark cut-fastball.
“It was a lot more (inside) than I thought it was going to be when I first got up there,” Franklin said. “Like I said, it’s a learning experience.”
And the Mariners will have to pick up stuff in a hurry if their season is to survive the month still reparable.