CHICAGO — It was a midgame gamble destined to pay off later had the Mariners’ bats fulfilled their end of the bargain.
But in the end, a decision to allow the left-handed bat of Raul Ibanez to face southpaw reliever Donnie Veal in the sixth inning of a tie game Saturday failed to pay off either short term or long.
Ibanez went down swinging against Veal with two on in the sixth, then again against right-hander Jesse Crain with two on in the eighth as the Mariners lost, 4-3, to the Chicago White Sox.
Ibanez was far from the only culprit on a day Mariners ace pitcher Felix Hernandez had little command and the bats this team is counting on failed to come through when it mattered most.
“I left a couple of chances out there,” Ibanez said. “I didn’t get it done. You’ve got to be better than that.”
Ibanez was better earlier on, lining a one-out double off White Sox starter Dylan Axelrod in the second inning and later scoring on an error to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. A crowd of 22,461 spectators at U.S. Cellular Field watched Hernandez hold the home side largely in-check early despite fighting swirling winds that impacted his command and caused nightmares all day for outfielders chasing fly balls.
But Chicago finally tied it in the fifth when Conor Gillaspie lined a ball over right fielder Michael Morse for a triple, then scored on a sacrifice fly by Hector Gimenez. Then, in the sixth, Hernandez hung an 0-2 changeup in the middle of the strike zone on Alex Rios and saw the ball knocked an estimated 417 feet over the wall in left center for a two-run homer.
“When it left my hand, I was like ‘This is going to be up’,” Hernandez said. “It was a changeup. I was trying to go down. But it didn’t work.”
Instead, Hernandez would leave with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh and had a fourth run charged to his ledger when Alejandro De Aza hit a sacrifice fly off Charlie Furbush to give the White Sox a 4-1 lead.
The Mariners tried to come back in the eighth when Michael Saunders connected for a two-run homer the opposite way to left off southpaw Matt Thornton. But with two on and one out, Ibanez went down swinging against Crain and Justin Smoak grounded out.
Having Ibanez around to face a right-hander late is one of the reasons manager Eric Wedge stuck with him earlier against left-hander Veal, who eventually picked up the victory by virtue of his scoreless inning of work.
Wedge said he wasn’t going to go to his bench that early in a tie game, even though Ibanez hit just .197 with a .492 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) versus southpaws last season.
“Not at that point in time,” Wedge said. “For the exact reason that he comes back again late with a chance against a right-hander and you feel pretty confident it’s going to come back around that way. It’s early in the season and you want to give these guys opportunities. Raul’s obviously been a clutch hitter most of his career. It looked like he had one pitch to hit. Otherwise that guy (Veal) pitched him pretty good.”
Ibanez worked the count to 2-0 before Veal painted the outside corner with a fastball that looked somewhat hittable. But Ibanez said he didn’t feel comfortable swinging at a borderline outside pitch like that and would have rather taken the strike than roll over on it and ground out.
Where Veal got the edge was by dropping in a 3-1 backdoor slider for a called strike. When he came back right away with the very same pitch, Ibanez knew he couldn’t afford to take it.
“Once he was able to throw that for a strike, I had to be prepared to hit it,” Ibanez said. “And he made a good pitch. It could have gone either way if I’d taken it, but with guys out there (on base) I wasn’t going to take that chance.”
But even with the strikeout, sticking with Ibanez appeared to pay off in terms of late-game matchups. Down 4-3 in the eighth, Wedge still had the right-handed bat of Jason Bay on the bench to use as a pinch-runner once Kendrys Morales got on.
And after a Morse walk put two on, he still had left-handed hitting Ibanez to use against right-hander Crain. Wedge also had Franklin Gutierrez and Jesus Montero to use as pinch hitters in the ninth.
But none of them got it done.
“Every single game that we’ve played this year I think we’ve had runners on base,” said Saunders, whose home run in the eighth was a first by a Mariner other than Morse or Gutierrez this season.
“We’re just missing that timely hit or whatever it may be. But we fought hard. We were in the game the entire way through. … If we continue to do that over the course of the season, we’re going to win a lot of ballgames.”