SEATTLE — A couple of hours before the Mariners took the field to conclude their weekend series, Mike Sweeney approached his manager with an offer.
Sweeney told manager Don Wakamatsu he would give him $100 if he would let starting pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith throw 100 pitches. Rowland-Smith hadn’t done that in any of his three prior outings before going out Sunday afternoon and tossing 109 in an 11-2 trouncing of the Tampa Bay Rays.
After the game, Sweeney, who had heard Rowland-Smith talking in recent days of badly wanting to surpass 100 pitches, went to Wakamatsu’s office and paid up.
“I flipped him a Benjamin,” he said with a laugh, before yelling across the room, “Hey, Ryan! It cost me a hundred bucks to keep you out there, but it was worth it!”
Wakamatsu and the Mariners front office might have chipped in far more than that to get Rowland-Smith to stay in the game beyond the fifth inning. That hasn’t happened often the past 10 days and the 1 1/3 -inning rapid exit by Ian Snell on Saturday once again had the Mariners worried about their bullpen.
But Rowland-Smith overcame some early woes, including a bases-loaded jam in the first inning and a two-run homer in the second, to go 6 2/3 solid frames and help Seattle take the series. A crowd of 28,490 at Safeco Field saw Russell Branyan blow things wide open with a grand slam in the sixth, while Franklin Gutierrez had a two-run blast and three hits to help chase Rays starter Scott Kazmir by the fifth inning.
Along the way, though, Rowland-Smith’s ability to adjust kept the game from getting out of hand in the other direction.
“It felt like I got more and more comfortable as the game went on,” said Rowland-Smith, who also tied a career high with six strikeouts. “It felt like my command was a little bit off the first couple of innings. But I started just to pitch to contact. I wasn’t doing that earlier on. It was like I was pitching away from contact. That’s something I normally do well, so it felt like once I got back to just doing my thing and pitching to contact I was a lot better off.”
So was his team.
Rowland-Smith had barely escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the first inning when Pat Burrell smoked a line drive right into the glove of Jose Lopez. The second baseman promptly stepped on his bag to double off the runner.
“You get some luck,” Rowland-Smith said. “You’re going to give up your line drives that get caught and your bloopers that don’t get caught. That’s baseball.”
Rowland-Smith wasn’t as lucky in the second inning, leading 1-0, when Dioner Navarro drove a pitch into the left field bullpen to put Tampa Bay ahead. But Ichiro Suzuki drove home the tying run in the bottom of the frame and Gutierrez then put Seattle back on top with a two-run homer to left.
The Mariners scored three more runs off Kazmir in the fifth to make it 7-2.
Branyan then came up with the bases loaded in the sixth and took an 0-1 pitch from reliever Jeff Bennett the opposite way to left for his fourth career grand slam and first since 2003. The Mariners had dropped Branyan, in a 1-for-16 slump before the slam, down to No. 6 in the batting order before the game.
There had been speculation Branyan’s back pain might land him on the disabled list this weekend. But he keeps toughing out the soreness and finding ways into the lineup for a Mariners squad that needs the offense his bat provides.
“It was nice to put some runs up and win a game where we could relax a little bit at the end,” Branyan said.
Rowland-Smith is only the second Mariners starter the past nine games since the trade deadline to go more than six innings and allow three earned runs or fewer. And that’s why any talk of the Mariners somehow slipping back into the wild-card race from its fringes seems premature until others show they can deliver quality innings.
Wakamatsu told Rowland-Smith, as he was leaving the mound in the seventh, that Sweeney had lobbied on his behalf.
“Probably the biggest thing is to be able to have a (bad) game like we did last night and come right back,” Wakamatsu said. “We talked about short-term memory and these guys coming out to play. They came out to play. And again, that rotates, or revolves around starting pitching.”
And if Wakamatsu gets it, he won’t need a payout to let pitchers go past the century mark.
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