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June 28, 2012 at 11:50 PM

Mariners made plays when they had to in support of their ace

What a thriler we saw tonight, but this 1-0 win over the Boston Red Sox came very close to being another one of those games where we spend the next 24 hours ripping the Mariners to pieces over their lack of offense.
Another 15 scoreless innings stretching from yesterday into tonight put the best game we’ve seen in at least two years out of Felix Hernandez in some serious trouble. But I’ll tell you what: if you don’t have the bats, you’d better darned sure have some gloves.
We saw two great catches by Casper Wells in the eighth inning, the final one coming on a slide in the left field corner. And then, in the ninth inning, Michael Saunders raced to the gap to snag that shot by Adrian Gonzalez with two men on.
If that ball lands, the game is over. Boston probably scores two on the play, Hernandez is toast on 127 pitches and Seattle’s spirit is broken. That was a nine-pitch at-bat with Gonzalez in which he fouled off four straight pitches after Hernandez fell behind 3-1 in the count.
Gonzalez is known as a “professional hitter” who delivers quality at-bats and he made Hernandez work.
“That at-bat against Adrian (Gonzalez), that was key right there,” Hernandez said. “I mean, that was all I’ve got. That’s all I’ve got.”
Hernandez had nothing left. He’d given his all and like I said, that would have been a game-ending gut-shot had Saunders not made the play. I’ve got to tell you, when Saunders was running that ball down, I forgot Franklin Gutierrez had been injured earlier in the game and thought it was him out there.
That’s how good a play Saunders made. The catch was not as easy as it looked.
“I was like ‘Get it! Get it! Get him out!’,” Hernandez said. “Saunders ran down that ball pretty good.”
Yes he did. What a turnaround season for him. We’ve discussed the struggles of some of the team’s hoped-for cornerstones but Saunders has had an opposite, surprising revival this season. And on nights when the M’s actually do win, it’s OK to celebrate the positives and hope to see more of them.
“He got a lot better last year,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of the defense shown by Saunders in center. “And he’s even taken it to another level this year. But once he got comfortable this year, his athleticism, his feel, really took off.”
Live chat with former Mariners pitcher Mark Langston

Not every team can throw a backup center fielder in there and have him make plays like that.
As for Wells, we’ve discussed his defense before. He is an excellent corner outfielder who can also play center. Oh yeah, he seems to be able to hit a bit as well.
First, that sliding catch he made in the left field corner. There’s a reason the fans were on their feet cheering at the end of the eighth.
“Luckily I wasn’t closer or I probably would have gotten smashed up pretty good,” Wells said. I got a good gauge on where the wall was and kind of slid into it. My knee caught the brunt of the bottom part of the wall. But luckily I had enough space to catch the ball there. It was kind of tight.”
There was a time several years back when Hernandez and some of the team’s other starting pitchers used to gripe about the quality of the outfield defense they’d seen behind them. Hernandez was still young back then and not really doing much of the loud griping himself. But he was following the lead of some other, more veteran pitchers who had been around and didn’t feel enough sacrifice was being made on balls hit down the line and to the outfield corners.
You won’t hear any such complaints tonight. Hernandez was raving about the defense afterwards.
I’m going to rave a bit about John Jaso and his pinch-hitting ability. Jaso is the best bench guy I think I have ever covered in my 15 seasons of doing this for a living both here and in Toronto. I’ve got to tell you, whenever he comes off the bench to pinch hit, or comes up in a close situation, I feel like he’s going to get the job done.
He’s 3-for-10 (.300) as a pinch-hitter and 9-for-24 (.375) in what Baseball Reference calls “close late” situations in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or with the tying run at least on deck. Jaso is also 9-for-27 (.300) in “high leverage” situations described by Baseball Reference as the most critical points in any game.
We can talk about his catcher defense all we want and I have certainly been a critic of some of his limited showings. But I’ll tell you what. As a backup catcher, he’s perfect. Most teams don’t play backup catchers more than once or twice weekly. Jaso can also DH a bit and he has that coolness in his veins to sit and sit and then come up and deliver.
He’s a valuable piece to have on this team and could probably teach many of the regulars a thing or two about hitting and proper approach.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline that starts pumping up really fast,” he said of late-game situations he thrives at. “I think it’s just kind of cooling that adrenaline. You kind of want to use it and not let it work against you. I think it’s just to have a calm approach. You can really start to come out of your shoes and try to do more than what you normally do.”
And Jaso slows his heartbeat well.
The Mariners do have some pieces. But gosh, they just have to start scoring earlier than this. It would have been a shame to waste this performance, where Hernandez tied a career high with 13 strikeouts and threw 128 pitches for his first complete game shutout since June 30, 2010 at Yankee Stadium.
Hernandez said it was easily his best game of the year. No kidding. It was one of the best he’s ever thrown. You always have to consider the quality of the opponent and the context of the team and the pitcher himself. Hernandez has had his struggles this season.
“I felt strong and all my pitches were working really well,” Hernandez said. “I was down in the zone and throwing strikes. That’s me right there. And after that, we played unbelievable defense.”
Yes, they did. And without it, this night would not have ended nearly as happily as it did. This team has plenty of work ahead of it. But it has some players who can make things happen. Tonight, a few of them did.



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