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June 14, 2013 at 11:37 PM

Night of firsts helps Mariners to different result in a tight game

Oliver Perez (right) closes out save and accepts congratulations from catcher Mike Zunino, who earlier hit his first big league home run. Photo Credit: AP

Oliver Perez (right) closes out save and accepts congratulations from catcher Mike Zunino, who earlier hit his first big league home run. Photo Credit: AP

Lately, it seems like the Mariners lose just about every tight game they find themselves in. I mean, who didn’t see the curtain coming down just a bit after Oliver Perez gave up that two-out single in the ninth? Come on, I’m sure some of you thought that Adam Rosales flyball to right was going to get caught up in a wind gust and blow clear over the wall.

But that didn’t happen.

The Mariners actually won a close game, 3-2, against the Oakland Athletics. This one was pretty big if the Mariners can now finish what they started here. They have to now follow up and win the next two starts by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.

First, they need both guys to pitch to the utmost of their capabilities. Then, they need the offense to come through.

The Mariners didn’t always do that here tonight. But they did it just enough. How big was that takeout slide at second by Kyle Seager to prolong the eighth inning and allow Raul Ibanez to cash-in the RBI single? That’s the second such takeout I’ve seen by Seager within the past week. The man plays hard every single game, even when he knows he’s going to be an automatic out. There’s no dogging it with him and this time it led to the winning run.

We’ve talked before about guys playing hard and how teams sometimes like to play to keep it close and look good on the scoreboard. But when you play hard — like Seager did there — there is no letting up, regardless of the score or situation. Too often, the Mariners don’t make a slide like that, an injury-hobbled Michael Morse would be thrown out by 10 feet to complete the double play and the Mariners would go on to blow the one-run lead in the eighth or ninth.

Tonight, they survived that one-run in the bottom of the eighth because Seager and Ibanez had helped to give them a two-run lead.

Sounds simple. But it makes all the difference. When you play hard and you play with fight, there’s a noticeable difference.

Joe Saunders brought his “A”-level game tonight and played with some passion and fight in him. It may not be as good as Hernandez’s A-game or Iwakuma’s, but it was good enough. Saunders is sick and tired of the “Safeco Joe” quips about his inability to win on the road and he looked like it out on the mound.

“That’s what was killing me early on in the season, the fact that I wasn’t being very consistent – especially on the road,’’ Saunders said. “So, it was time to step up my game a little bit…and go get ‘em.’’

He was asked how he did that.

“You work on it a little bit in the bullpen,” he said. “I’ve worked on some mechanical stuff with (pitching coach) Carl (Willis) in the bullpen and he’s been great with me in that respect. It’s just a matter of being consistent and being confident. You know you can do this. It’s just a matter of going out and doing it.”

Indeed, the Mariners seemed to just stop all the over-thinking of stuff tonight and went out and got things done.

Mike Zunino sure didn’t seem hampered by an inability to hit off-speed pitches when he drilled that 80 mph changeup over the center field wall in the seventh.

“I think it’s just pitch-selection,’’ Zunino said of his reputation for struggling with breaking balls and off-speed stuff. “I feel like I’ve always been good with breaking balls and I think it’s just getting breaking balls inside the zone to hit.

“I think it’s one of those things where I’m becoming more patient and trying to take more pitches and I think that’s helped me so far.’’

Zunino said he’d seen similar changeups from Tommy Milone in his previous at-bats.

“I’m just trying to pick my spots to get at certain pitches,” he said. “I was just fortunate to get one in that situation.”

Zunino has spent the past two weeks working on going with pitches more and not trying to do too much.

He also flashed some defense with that tag on Nate Freiman on that second inning play. Zunino had to go to his right for the throw, then swung back and made the tag with the 6-foot-8 Freiman bareling in on him. Zunino played agains Freiman in the Arizona Fall League last year and was well aware of the size of the man making a beeline towards him at home.

But he nevertheless kept the plate blocked and forced Freiman to go around.

“I just had to make sure I had the ball first and dove back to the plate,’’ Zunino said “I was able to get a piece of him before he got in.’’

Mariners manager Eric Wedge liked what he saw from Zunino both behind the plate and up at bat.

“You saw him get the base hit the other day up the middle,” Wedge said of Zunino’s work on off-speed pitches. “He takes a great BP — we talked about that all spring. His BP stuck out for me as a young player. He’s still doing that now and he’s taking it into the game.”

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