Youngsters shine in Seattle loss
Mariners edged by Rays despite play from trio of rookies
SEATTLE -- As the Mariners' playoff hopes have been extinguished for a while now, much of the focus will sit on the Seattle youth movement for the rest of the season as the club looks for talent that eventually will come to fruition.So while the Mariners lost Friday night's game 5-3 against the American League East-leading Rays at Safeco Field in front of 30,220, it was worth noting that those three runs almost solely came from the young bucks Seattle has thrown into the fire in hopes of obtaining an accurate evaluation before the season's end. Rookies Jeff Clement, Wladimir Balentien and Bryan LaHair are getting consistent playing time, and Australian lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith is starting on Saturday after getting called up from Triple-A Tacoma, where he was transitioning from a reliever to a starter. Ace reliever Brandon Morrow also is down in Tacoma becoming a starter. Clement and Balentien have been given extended looks this year, coming up twice each despite struggling at the Major League level. And on Friday the Mariners got a little glimpse of what could be. Balentien has only been back up for a few games, but he already seems more comfortable at the plate than his first struggle-filled stint. On Thursday, he rifled a shot off the wall in right-center field in the eighth inning for a double to help Seattle tie the score. And in the second inning of Friday's game, he took it to the next level -- literally. On a 2-1 pitch from Tampa Bay starter James Shields that came back across the middle of the plate, Balentien unleashed a fierce cut that Triple-A Tacoma has been seeing for much of this season. The result was a towering fly toward left field that banged off the upper deck for a 424-foot two-run homer -- one of the longest blasts Safeco has seen this season -- that put the Mariners up 2-1. "That's a good shot," Balentien said after the game with a hearty laugh. It was his first homer since May 12, and after going 2-for-4 on Friday, Balentien is riding a six-game hitting streak and is 5-for-14 since returning to Seattle on Tuesday. He said he's more comfortable and selective at the plate, and a shot like that had to provide some more good vibes. "Sometimes when you get a ball like that, you don't feel nothing," he said. "You know you hit it in a good spot, but you don't feel the ball." It actually was the more veteran Seattle players who contributed to a four-run Tampa Bay third inning that ended up being the decisive blow. With runners on first and second, B.J. Upton hit a single off Mariners starter Carlos Silva to right to score a run. The other runners advanced to second and third when Ichiro Suzuki threw the ball over the cutoff man to home -- well behind the scoring runner. Then Yuniesky Betancourt fielded a tough one-hopper at shortstop, but he threw the ball over first base and out of play to allow both runners to score. A single from Carlos Pena then scored Carl Crawford from second and gave Tampa Bay a 5-2 lead. "[Betancourt] just kind of dropped his arm a little bit, got under the ball and threw it over the first baseman's head. It's a process with Yuni," Seattle manager Jim Riggleman said. "Instead of throwing it over there in that manner, he's got to get his arm up. He probably won't do that again for a while. Nobody feels worse about it than him. I think he would have jumped off a building at that point if he could. He was really upset with himself. It made it tougher on Carlos, but we still have to get out of there with as little damage as possible." The Mariners would not recover from that damage, as Shields and the Rays bullpen finished out the game without much trouble. But Seattle's final run came in the fourth inning thanks to the aforementioned youthful trio. A shot to the center-field fence by Clement went for a double, and he was followed by a Balentien infield single and a grounder up the middle by LaHair for another infield hit to bring home a run and pull the Mariners within two. "Pretty good at-bats," Riggleman said. "Balentien, Clement and LaHair each saw a number of pitches, went deep into counts and got on base. They did fine, but we're trying to win the game, not be happy with a couple of good performances in the lineup." Clement has been given plenty of chances at the expense of regular catcher Kenji Johjima, and he has started to show marked improvement as of late. In addition to the two-bagger, Clement also slapped a single to left field in the sixth inning. He has eight hits in his past 20 at-bats. "I'm trying to let the ball travel a little bit deeper and just trusting myself to be able to get to that inside fastball if I have to," Clement said. Although the Mariners have struggled this season, Clement appreciates the extended opportunity he's been given. And while the year hasn't gone according to plan, the team has shown notable competiveness during its last two series against playoff contenders Minnesota and Tampa Bay. "Well I'm happy to be here, no matter what the circumstances are," Clement said. "We've had a pretty good homestand and won a few really close games, so I'm looking forward to seeing what's going to happen the last two months. But, yeah, I'm really happy to be here and have the opportunity to be catching."
Jesse Baumgartner is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.