You know a baseball team has taken a right turn into Giddyville when the most inspiring moment of an unseasonably intense weekend is a manager’s sermon on the mound.
But that’s what happened Sunday at Safeco Field where an as-fun-as-advertised series between the Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies concluded with Eric Wedge’s decision to allow Jason Vargas to finish what he started.
Vargas, owning a 2-0 lead, needed one out for a complete-game, two-hit shutout when Phillies slugger Ryan Howard connected on a soft liner that shortstop Brendan Ryan couldn’t snare on the grass in shallow center field. That brought the tying run to the plate and Wedge out of the dugout, surely to replace the fatigued left-hander with closer Brandon League.
Instead, the manager trusted his instincts – “I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do,” he would say later, “but I wanted to go out there and look at Jason in the eyes” – and when Wedge walked back to the dugout, the sellout crowd of 45,462 responded with the sort of roar no big league veteran ever tires of hearing.
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“For ‘Wedgie’ to come out there with those crazy eyes and tell his pitcher, ‘I’m sticking with you, let’s get it done,’ that’s great stuff from a manager,” Ryan said. “I had been all the way out there in center trying to make the catch on Howard, and I sprinted in so I could at least pat Jason on the butt before he was out of there. The next thing I know, hey, he’s not going anywhere.”
Vargas sensed he’d be able to avoid the hook, but then admitted: “First time I’ve ever had a manager come out in the ninth inning and leave me in. It’s nice to feel he has that confidence in me to leave me out there and finish the game.”
The message Wedge sent was comprehended by more than Vargas.
“It told me, ‘Let’s get this done. Let’s focus. Let’s execute. Let’s finish this,’ ” Ryan said. “I’m sure it fired the pitcher up, it fired all of us up. It was awesome.”
Moments after his reprieve, Vargas got the right-handed hitting Ben Francisco to fly out to Franklin Gutierrez in center field. Gutierrez is so automatic, Vargas didn’t even bother to watch the catch that sealed his second shutout of the season. There were fists to bump and hands to shake, beginning with catcher Miguel Olivo.
Safeco Field’s first interleague series of 2011 was supposed to showcase a surprisingly effective Seattle starting staff against a more vaunted Philadelphia rotation that spared the Mariners from having to face either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee. It was no surprise that dominant pitching was the story of each of the three games.
The surprise was that after Felix Hernandez labored through a frustrating start Saturday because his team’s bats were silenced, Vargas outdueled left-hander Cole Hamels, a nine-game winner and probable National League All-Star, on Sunday.
Taking on a hot club that arrived in Seattle with the best record in baseball, the Mariners scored seven measly runs for the weekend – and won two out of three.
“I keep saying this,” Ryan said, “but there’s room to get better. We’re still not clicking offensively all the way. One through nine, I don’t think anyone is red hot or anything. I think we’re all trying to get it going, and we will. It goes in cycles.
“Hopefully our pitching stays healthy, but if everything’s going? We could be a fun team to watch.”
Thanks to a Tacoma-Seattle pipeline that has infused the big-league roster with new blood, the Mariners of mid-June are twice as fun to watch as they were, say, in mid-April. Former Rainiers outfielder Greg Halman, who got the start in left field Sunday, chased down a fast-falling liner off the bat of Francisco to make the shutout possible.
Vargas was in a jam not of his making – Olivo’s failure to catch the third strike of what should’ve been a three-up, three-down first inning led to the Phillies having runners on second and third – but he was in a jam just the same, and he was saved by Halman’s sheer athletic ability.
Most dazzling Tacoma call-up? Easily second baseman Dustin Ackley. After hitting a single on an 0-2 count in his first at-bat Friday, and a home run on an 0-2 count Saturday, Ackley launched a shot into the right-center gap in the seventh inning Sunday. For somebody with ordinary running ability, that’s a double. For Ackley, it was a triple.
As for Ackley’s defense – he was labeled adequate in Tacoma, but no candidate for a future Gold Glove – the converted outfielder/first baseman continued to impress in the series finale by turning three grounders well to his left into outs.
Watching Ackley and Halman represent the youth movement, and Vargas exercise pinpoint control while pitching the game of his life, the crowd at Safeco Field was as lively as Wedge envisioned when he showed up in Seattle last fall for the press conference that introduced him as the Mariners’ manager.
“There’s a positive energy. The electricity in this ballpark is real, and our ballclub feels it,” Wedge said after the Mariners took advantage of a Texas defeat and cut their first-place deficit to half a game. “When fans come out here and support our guys the way they have – particularly this weekend – it does nothing but help us.
“Hey, I heard it coming off the field after leaving Vargas in there. That was nice to hear, too.”
Buckle your seatbelts. The calendar turns over Tuesday, from spring to summer, and the manager with the crazy eyes has his team a half-game out of first place.