April 12, 2013

Practice makes perfect as Rangers squeeze past Mariners

Robbie Ross and A.J. Pierzynski snuffed out an eighth-inning bunt play to preserve a 4-3 win.

The life of a pitcher during spring training includes a daily dose of fielding practice for moments like the one Robbie Ross encountered Thursday night at Safeco Field.

They don’t necessarily practice what to do in the event of a suicide squeeze every day, but it’s part of the lesson plan.

Ross and catcher A.J. Pierzynski executed on a squeeze attempt in the eighth inning, preventing Seattle from tying the game, and Texas Rangers pitchers danced out of trouble seemingly every inning of a 4-3 victory over the Mariners.

Joe Ortiz was the only pitcher who had it easy, working two scoreless innings in relief of starter Justin Grimm to earn his first major-league victory. Pierzynski homered off Felix Hernandez, and David Murphy and Nelson Cruz had two-out RBI hits in the fifth to snap a 2-2 tie.

Lance Berkman got in the act, too, though his key contribution won’t show up in the box score. He beat out the back end of an attempted double play in the fifth to give Murphy and Cruz a chance to deliver.

“You like to see baseball played at it’s highest level, and it came down to executing a play that helped us win the ballgame,” manager Ron Washington said of the Ross-Pierzynski gem, before then praising Berkman.

“If Berk doesn’t beat the back of that, you never know what may happen. He’s a tough competitor, man, and tonight he brought the best out of us.”

But it looked like the Mariners would get Hernandez off the hook and spoil Ortiz’s bid at his first win when they started the eighth with a bloop single by Justin Smoak and a bloop double by Jesus Montero.

Smoak scored on a grounder by Robert Andino that pushed pinch-runner Endy Chavez to third. Brendan Ryan followed, and pitching coach Mike Maddux went to the mound and cautioned Ross that a squeeze could be in play.

It was on on the third pitch of the at-bat. The bunt, though, was too hard, giving Ross time to glove the ball and flip it to Pierzynski.

Chavez’s slide caught Pierzynski’s left shin guard in front of the plate.

“Luckily for us he bunted it hard enough to where Robbie could get it to me in time,” Pierzynski said. “It’s awkward play for the catcher when a guy’s coming like that. You want to get the ball as quick as possible.”

Ross initially thought he would flip the ball with his glove but saw that he had enough time to grab it and flip it, almost like an option quarterback.

“It’s just get there as quick as you can. That’s the biggest thing,” Ross said. “It was an option, run out of a Wildcat. I don’t even know football, really.”

Ross had also recorded a key out in the seventh after the Mariners loaded the bases against Tanner Scheppers with two outs. The third batter to reach was Michael Morse on a hit by pitch, but he had also been hit on the hand while checking his swing a pitch early.

He suffered a small non-displaced fracture of the right pinkie finger but hopes to play Monday.

Ross struck out Raul Ibanez to end the threat, continuing a trend of Rangers pitchers escaping.

The only one who didn’t face a jam was Ortiz, who ripped through the fifth and sixth innings in order. Even closer Joe Nathan, who worked a 1-2-3 ninth, dodged a bullet when Jason Bay’s deep flyball was caught at the warning track in center field to end the game.

Nathan later presented Ortiz with a ball from the game to commemorate his first career win.

“After I found out I got my first major-league victory, I was very happy,” Ortiz said. “I have a little more confidence than I did earlier.”

Grimm labored through his first start of the season as the replacement for Matt Harrison, who landed on the 15-day disabled list with an inflamed nerve in his back. Grimm needed 24 pitches in the first, 27 in the second and 26 in the third before turning in a 14-pitch fourth.

He missed up in the strike zone too often, including to the first batter he faced. Franklin Gutierrez hit a homer to left field, and Seattle scored again in the second on a bases-loaded fielder’s choice.

The Mariners had runners at second and third with one out in the third, but Grimm struck out Smoak and got Montero to pop to right field to end the threat.

The Rangers, meanwhile, collected two singles in the first but couldn’t score against Hernandez. Pierzynski, though, kick-started a two-run second with a solo homer, and Mitch Moreland followed with a liner to left that was dropped by Ibanez.

Leonys Martin singled Moreland to second before Ian Kinsler struck out for the second out. But Elvis Andrus squeezed a single through the left side of the infield to plate Moreland for a 2-1 lead.

The Rangers got going again in the fifth, an inning that started with a Kinsler single and an Andrus walk. Berkman followed with a chopper to first and beat out the back end of a double play, a key sequence.

After Adrian Beltre struck out, Murphy singled home Kinsler and Cruz plated Berkman with a double to left for a 4-2 lead.

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