OAKLAND, Calif. — Things looked pretty good for the Mariners after having hit two more home runs just a half inning into this game.
But Mariners starter Joe Saunders knew his team was in trouble almost from the moment he stepped on the mound to try to protect his early lead. The veteran left-hander just could not get a proper grip on the baseball from the start and a 6-2 loss Wednesday night to the Oakland Athletics was all-but-confirmed four laborious innings from Saunders later.
Jed Lowrie capped a three-extra-base-hit night in the fourth with a tiebreaking two-run double off Saunders and the A’s never looked back.
“It was hard,” Saunders said. “It felt like the balls had some funny stuff on them. Not to make excuses, you’ve got to make adjustments. It just felt like some of them were taking off.
“It felt like my arm felt good,” he added. “I felt like my command was actually better. It was just tough to grip the ball.”
Saunders needed 88 pitches to get through the four innings and only some timely grounders kept that count from soaring beyond 100. He yielded seven hits — five of them doubles — while walking four.
Kameron Loe came on after that and tossed three innings, but served up back-to-back solo home runs to Lowrie and Chris Young in the seventh that closed out the scoring. Lowrie finished the night 3 for 3 with the home run, two doubles, a walk and three runs batted in.
The crowd of 15,162 at the Coliseum had looked on stunned in the first inning as Franklin Gutierrez led off with a solo homer against A’s left-hander Tommy Milone. Michael Morse followed a few batters later with another mammoth blast over the center-field wall for his third home run in two nights.
But that 2-0 lead didn’t seem safe from the first Oakland batter onward. Even the outs Saunders was getting were often being lined 300 feet to an outfielder.
He managed to escape the first inning unscathed, but then yielded a run-scoring single on the first major-league hit by Nate Freiman in the second. The A’s loaded the bases with none out in the third and tied it on a deep drive to center for a sacrifice fly by Yoenis Cespedes.
Saunders used some long, well-hit outs to get out of further trouble that inning, but then, after a walk and a bloop single to start the fourth, he served up the two-run gapper by Lowrie.
By contrast, A’s starter Milone used a double-play grounder from Robert Andino to escape a two-on, none out situation in the second. The Mariners had just two hits after the first inning and Milone breezed through the seventh on 102 pitches for the victory.
This debut outing by Saunders follows a spring training in which he went 1-1 with an 11.57 earned-run average in four outings and yielded eight runs over five innings to Arizona his final Cactus League start. But Saunders has had rough springs before, then rebounded in April — in which he had a career best 3.25 ERA for the month.
But on this night, unable to grip the ball, his secondary pitches deserted him.
“He just didn’t have the command with his secondary stuff that he typically has,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “I thought he had a pretty good fastball. He came out and he looked strong. He battled. He controlled damage about as well as you can considering everything. But he just wasn’t able to ever really lock it in.”
Saunders wasn’t the only Mariners pitcher who struggled with baseballs. Charlie Furbush knocked Josh Reddick down with an eighth-inning pitch up and in, then hit him in the back with his next offering.
Furbush then sent a pitch to the next batter, Brandon Moss, sailing over his head and to the backstop.
Loe also said the baseballs felt “really powdery” like they had “a lot of resin on them” but added that it had nothing to do with the home runs allowed.
It all made for a long night for Montero, who collected two line-drive singles while starting his third game in three nights behind the plate — something he never did last season.
“This is the first time this has happened to us,” Montero said of the baseballs. “The ball was just flying away … we never got a feel for it. I don’t know what happened.”
They’ll try to figure it out Thursday afternoon in the finale of this season-opening four-game series Seattle still leads by a game.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.