OAKLAND, Calif. — A night of firsts for a Mariners veteran and newbie gave the team a much-needed win to begin a crucial road trip.
The long-awaited first road win of the season for Mariners starter Joe Saunders may not have been possible Friday night without recent Class AAA callup Mike Zunino playing a key role. Zunino snapped a seventh-inning tie with his first career home run and the Mariners went on to a 3-2 win over the Oakland Athletics to start a trip on which they desperately need to start turning this disappointing season around.
Zunino’s blast off Athletics starter Tommy Milone, in just Zunino’s second big-league game, silenced a crowd of 31,448 at the Coliseum and gave the Mariners a key leg up in a series that now sees top starters Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma pitching the next two days. It gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead at the time, which they later added to before a late home run by Chris Young off Danny Farquhar made things tighter in the eighth.
Oliver Perez came on to close out the ninth — allowing just a two-out single — as Tom Wilhelmsen gets a break from those duties the next few days.
Saunders gave up just a run on five hits over seven innings in a 98-pitch effort. He has a 4-2 record and 2.53 earned-run average at Safeco Field, but had been 0-4 with a 9.00 ERA on the road.
He’d pitched well enough to win a game in San Diego a few weeks back, only to see a lead torched in the ninth by Wilhelmsen. It looked like a similar hard-luck fate might befall Saunders this time when, up 1-0 in the fifth, he saw two of his fielders collide on a ball to shallow right with two outs and a runner on first.
Mariners second baseman Nick Franklin raced back for the ball, unaware that right fielder Jason Bay was charging in for it simultaneously.
At the last moment, Franklin reached for the ball, only to have it knocked from his glove by the converging Bay.
The ball hit the ground and rolled away for a double, with Athletics base runner Adam Rosales scoring all the way from first.
And it stayed 1-1 until the seventh inning when Zunino stepped in to face left-hander Milone. With the count 1-1, Milone tried to slip an 80 mph changeup past Zunino, only to see the first-year catcher turn quickly on it.
The ball kept on carrying until center fielder Young could go no farther. Zunino’s first career homer gave the Mariners the lead and also — if only for the moment — eased concerns about his ability to hit off-speed pitches in the majors.
Zunino also eased some defensive concerns much earlier on in the game when he made a nice tag at the plate on incoming base runner Nate Freiman. With Freiman at second and one out, Derek Norris hit a single to center that was bobbled by Michael Saunders.
But Freiman had already stopped at third by the time Saunders got to the ball. The Athletics sent Freiman home, but the delay in starting back up again gave Saunders time to recover and make a throw to the cutoff man.
Brendan Ryan took the throw, spun and made a good relay home. Zunino had to go to his right for the ball, but was blocking enough of the plate that Freiman had to slide in wide from the left.
That again slowed Freiman up enough that Zunino was able to sweep back and make the tag without dropping the ball. It was not an easy play, but Zunino showed the poise needed to get it done.
The Mariners had already squandered a handful of early chances to grab a bigger lead off Milone. With runners at the corners and none out in the second inning, Zunino grounded into a double play that scored a run but thwarted any chance at a much bigger inning.
Ryan led the third inning off with a double against Milone, then went to third on a ground out. But with one out, Franklin hit a soft fly ball to shallow right that was nowhere near deep enough to bring home the runner — especially with cannon-armed Josh Reddick making the catch.
Kyle Seager flied out to left to end the threat.
It was Seager who helped his team to a huge insurance run in the eighth inning after his single put two on with one out. Michael Morse grounded a ball to second that looked like a potential double play because he still isn’t running well.
But Seager made a hard takeout slide on shortstop Jed Lowrie, giving Morse time to hobble in to first base. Instead of the inning being done, there were now runners at the corners and Raul Ibanez made the most of it with a single to make it a 3-1 game.