Thiel: Mariners never far from spank or hug

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 7:49 AM

Updated Tuesday, Jun 19 at 1:30 AM

Just when it's time to throw the Mariners over the civic knees and spank them for youthful indiscretions, they pull off a weekend like this one against the San Francisco Giants, instead inspiring all to pinch their cheeks and say, "Wudgie, wudgie, wudgie."

Or Wedgie, Wedgie, Wedgie, for the guy who made all the right moves Sunday in an implausible 2-1 win. Spanks or hugs, manager Eric Wedge has been dealing in heavy doses of both this season to goad his baseball kids. On Father's Day, the kids paid him back a little with as diabolically taut and intriguing a game as the Mariners have engaged in this season, in front of the biggest crowd (40,603) since Opening Day.

Helpless for eight innings against San Francisco ace Madison Bumgarner, the Mariners  waited him out until he left the ninth to relievers. Three modest singles later, the last by Justin Smoak, the Mariners had a game and series from the Giants, who aren't quite sure how they didn't sweep the locals.

"We just got shut down," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "The ninth was the difference. It was the golden opportunity but we didn't quite get it done and they got the big hit."

Following the offensive bomblet in Saturday's 7-4 win, two valuable things happened Sunday:Felix Hernandez returned nearly fully to form (seven innings, one run, six his, seven strikeouts), and reliever Tom Wilhelmsen handled as tense an assignment as he's had as closer, seeming to solve for the role for a good long while.

After one out in the ninth of a game tied at 1, No. 9 hitter Emmanuel Burriss singled and Wilhelmsen walked Gregor Blanco and Pablo Sandoval to load the bases and bring up the National League's leading hitter, Melky Cabrera (.361). It appeared yet another masterful Hernandez start was being flushed by the bullpen.

Pitching coach Carl Willis ambled to the mound to talk to the one-time bartender about closing time.

"I wasn't throwing strikes," Wilhelmsen said. "Carl told me to take a breather. I was rushing a little bit. And to stay on top of the mound and come with your best stuff."

Three pitches later, Cabrera, almost unbelievably, struck out.

"He missed 'em," Wilhelmsen said to laughter. "I got lucky today, I guess. He's a great hitter, doing his thing real darn well. I guess I wanted it a little bit more."

Wilhelmsen wanted it more than Cabrera. True or not, that is the kind of swagger the Mariners desperately need. Big boy ball.

Bochy then sent up pinch-hitter Nate Schierholtz, a lefty, who grounded out routinely to second. Wilhelmsen had survived his sternest test as Brandon League's replacement.

"Without a doubt --  I think," he said, smiling. "It was pretty darn loud and exciting. It was a great crowd and they were all on their feet."

Then it was the offense's turn to play big boy in the absence of Bumgarner. Singles by Kyle Seager and Jesus Montero chased Sergio Romo, who had the National League's best ERA among relievers (0.50). Michael Saunders, pinch-hitting for Casper Wells against Javier Lopez, attempted a sacrifice bunt, but he forced the runner at third.

Then Smoak, probably the most notable victim of Safeco Field's bias against power hitters and who had flown out in three previous at-bats, calmly made contact with a fastball that looped toward the left field line. With two outs, pinch runner Munenori Kawasaki was on the move and beat easily the throw to the plate.

It was Smoak's first walk-off hit of his career, and second for the Mariners this season. He ran into right field to escape his fellow celebrants, and failed miserably.

"That was as hard as I've run," Smoak said, grinning. "It was big to get some runs last night, and today, well, we just kept grinding."

After a six-game losing streak, including three in a row to the NL's worst team, San Diego, grinding was the only available option other than quitting. They have won two in a row, and probably will win several more on the road, where they become formidable.

With these guys, the spank and the hug are rarely far apart.

Kids.

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