Felix Hernandez will start Sunday for the Seattle Mariners, who have rolled the past two seasons when their ace has faced the Texas Rangers.
Dodging a loss will be difficult for the Rangers. Dodging a sweep would have been especially tough.
Maybe that entered into manager Jeff Banister’s thinking in the 10th inning Saturday after rookie left fielder Ryan Strausborger dropped a fly ball for a two-base error to open the frame.
The wheels started spinning in the Rangers’ dugout as they searched for a way, any way, to win the game with the top of the Mariners’ order coming against closer Shawn Tolleson.
What followed was unconventional, but it worked. Not only did an escape that featured back-to-back walks to the two best Seattle hitters work, but it jump-started the Rangers to an eight-run 11th and an 11-3 victory at Safeco Field.
“I know it’s not optimal,” Banister said. “It’s not exactly how you draw it up, but that’s how much I trust Tolly.”
The game had been tied at 3-all since the fourth inning when Seth Smith sent a drive off Tolleson to left field to open the 10th. Strausborger slipped on the warning track before gloving the ball, but it popped out for a two-base error.
“I thought the ball was going to the wall,” Strausborger said. “I tried to get to the wall, and the ball died on me.”
The Mariners tried to bunt with the .173-hitting Mike Zunino, who ended up striking out, and Tolleson struck out Rangers killer Kyle Seager for the second out and gave the Rangers some flexibility.
“I was trying to get to two strikes on them and then I was trying to throw something out of the zone,” said Tolleson, who unnecessarily pitched the 11th with an eight-run lead. “With Zunino … he chased it. With Seager, I threw something in the zone and he just happened to be out in front of it.”
The red-hot Nelson Cruz was next and was to be followed by the equally hot Robinson Cano and Jesus Montero, who had driven in the first Seattle run.
First base was open. So was third. After a talk with pitching coach Mike Maddux and throwing the first pitch to Cruz outside, Tolleson threw three intentional balls and four more to Cano.
“At that point, I’ve got an opportunity to choose who’s going to take the swings at us,” Banister said. “I would rather have that matchup of Tolleson and Montero.”
Said Tolleson: “Part of me is competitive, so I never like to just put guys on. But in that situation of the game, it was definitely the right move.”
Montero struck out looking to end the inning.
“I was trying to put the ball in play, but I got nothing else to say,” Montero said. “It was a very tough at-bat right there. I tried my best to hit the ball hard. He made some good pitches. He was throwing hard.”
The escape, players said, gave the Rangers’ offense a boost. Adrian Beltre started with a single off Rob Rasmussen, and four more followed. After that came a double and another single. After Strausborger lined sharply to center for the first out, Prince Fielder launched an opposite-field homer to cap the inning.
The key at-bat belonged to Josh Hamilton, who fell behind 0-2, took two close pitches for balls, fouled off another, and singled to right-center to score Beltre for a 4-3 lead.
“You’ve got a guy that gets out of a jam like that and you’ve been out there as long as you have, maybe it gives that extra jolt of adrenaline and a little jolt of focus,” Hamilton said. “He got us back in there so we could get another chance.”
The Rangers have won five of their past six games and snapped a six-game losing streak to the Mariners.
All it took was some unconventional strategy and the second-biggest scoring output in extra innings in club history. But, hey, it worked.
“These guys play with a lot of emotion, and they know what’s at stake,” Banister said. “I think the excitement of being able to get out of the inning with Tolleson gave them the energy and the passion to go out there and have some quality at-bats. Just a tribute to those guys.”
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760