Lots of good things were happening for the Mariners tonight. Jeremy Bonderman pitched out of his mind — eight shutout innings, allowing just three hits. Yeah, it’s the Astros, but put it together with six strong innings against the Yankees, and Bonderman has given up just one run on six hits over his last 14 innings — including 13 straight scoreless frames. I’ll admit I absolutely did not see this coming after he was shelled by Minnesota, but it’s looking like that game might be the aberration.
You had a nice debut for Mike Zunino, who banged out his first hit, threw out a runner, and did a fine job catching Bonderman. You had Nick Franklin coming through with a clutch two-out RBI single in the eighth (his third hit) to finally give the Mariners the lead, 1-0 (Franklin’s average now sits at .300, his OPS at .917; so far, so good).
And then it all unraveled in a disastrous ninth, as the Astros — held scoreless for 17 straight innings by Aaron Harang and Bonderman — erupted for six runs to win 6-1. Five of the runs were charged to Tom Wilhelmsen in one-third of an inning, leading to two obvious questions: Why did Eric Wedge pull Bonderman, and what do you do with Wilhelmsen moving forward?
To answer the first one, Wedge said Bonderman’s health history – he missed two seasons recovering from various injuries, including Tommy John and shoulder surgery – swayed his decision. Bonderman had thrown just 89 pitches through eight.
Asked if he considered leaving in Bonderman for the ninth, Wedge said, “No, no, we can’t do that to him. Not with his history. What are we, 13, 14 months off surgery, and he hasn’t been that deep in a ballgame in three or four years. A 0-0 ballgame, a 1-0 ballgame, you’re not going to do that to him. It wouldn’t be fair.”
With Tacoma this year, Bonderman had thrown seven starts over 90 pitches, peaking at 104 on May 2, and he went 97 pitches his last outing against the Yankees. But Bonderman said he had no complaints with the decision.
“I felt good,’’ he said. “It’s not my call to make, Tom’s one of the best in the game. I don’t have any problem with that move at all. Ninety nine percent of the time, he’s probably going to seal that down.”
Personally, I would have left Bonderman in at least to start the ninth, with Wilhelmsen ready to come in if he faltered. But you still have to count on Wilhelmsen to close it down. After a rocky stretch in which he blew three out of four, he had bounced back to save four in a row. But now Wedge said they’ll be re-examining the closing situation.
“We have to talk about it. Obviously, you want to do what’s best for the ball club and Tom, too. … Tom Wilhelmsen is still our closer standing here right now. The game is just over. Anything we do will involve a lot of conversation. We’ll make sure we do the right things for right reason.
“You’ve got to be careful; any type of decision you make, you have to make sure it’s the right one to do before you move forward, because you’re not going to bounce back and fourth.”
My hunch is that even if he backs off Wilhelmsen for a bit, as he did with a struggling Brandon League a couple of years ago, that Wilhelmsen will be back in the role before long. They really don’t have many other options; probably Carter Capps at the top of the list. But Wilhelmsen is the one with the best closer’s stuff, and he’s had a lot of success in the job. Tonight, he had no command of his breaking pitches and was leaving his fastballs up, a bad combination. The Mariners desperately need him to figure out a way to be more consistent, as he was for the first month-plus of the season, when Wilhelmsen was on an All-Star track.
Just add it to the growing list of fires to put out in this troubled season.