Mariners sputter against their former ace
Vargas allows five runs on nine hits over six innings
SEATTLE -- Cliff Lee was dominant on the Safeco Field mound Saturday night while pitching in late September for the team that's running away with the American League West.
But in a telling sign of the turns the Mariners' year has taken since general manager Jack Zduriencik landed the elite left-hander in a February trade, Lee did his damage for Texas, not Seattle, and the last-place Mariners fell to the first-place Rangers, 6-1, before 20,843.
In the first meeting between Lee and the team that dealt him and reliever Mark Lowe away in early July for prospect Justin Smoak and two other Minor Leaguers, the short-lived Mariner was every bit the economical ace that earned the Cy Young Award for the Indians in 2008 and starred in the postseason for the Phillies in 2009.
And the Mariners were the offensive unit that has been struggling all year to support good starting pitching. This time, however, their starter, southpaw Jason Vargas, wasn't his usual stingy self. He lasted six innings but gave up five runs on nine hits.
That was more than enough for Lee, who had dropped three of his past four decisions and missed a start while dealing with muscular pain and inflammation in his lower back. The lefty lasted eight innings for his 12th win of the year, and aside from a Franklin Gutierrez home run to left-center field in the seventh, the Mariners didn't have many opportunities to score.
The one time they had a chance to make the game interesting, Lee put a lid on it in a hurry. After Lee breezed through the first four innings, at one point striking out six in the span of 10 batters, Smoak led off the bottom of the sixth with a single and Josh Bard doubled him to third. The crowd got loud but quieted down quickly, however, when Lee struck out Matt Tuiasosopo, got Michael Saunders to pop out to shortstop and got Josh Wilson on a lazy fly ball to right field.
"He does a little bit of everything and just kind of keeps you off balance," Mariners interim manager Daren Brown said. "And he comes right at you. You know he's going to throw strikes, you know he's going to be around the plate. That makes him the guy that he is. Any time he's on the other side, you know you've got a tough game in front of you.
"His numbers speak for themselves. His career speaks for itself. He is who he is. He's going to be tough on anybody. ... He's that type of guy."
Vargas had been tough on just about everybody this year -- he brought a very respectable 3.62 ERA into the game and beat Texas the previous time he faced them, on Aug. 3 at Safeco -- but couldn't wiggle out of key two-out situations.
In the third inning, he got a key fielder's choice out when he fielded an Elvis Andrus comebacker and threw to catcher Josh Bard to nail Jeff Francoeur at the plate, but the next batter, Michael Young, singled in a run to give Texas a 1-0 advantage.
And in the sixth, he got two quick outs before Texas erupted for two more runs, sparked by a Jorge Cantu double and Bengie Molina's third single of the night.
"That was probably the biggest thing -- when they put themselves in a position to score and when I made a mistake they capitalized on it," said Vargas, who gave up a season-high five runs at home this year and has lost six consecutive starts to fall to 9-11.
"They swing the bat real well and they don't let you make mistakes very often. When you've got a team like that, you've just got to keep battling and battling and I came out of the game in the sixth and I thought I threw the ball better than the scoreboard showed."
But he was no Lee on Saturday night, and the Mariners became another team victimized by the pitcher they hoped would help lead them to where the Rangers are headed: October.
For Lee, however, this sort-of homecoming seemed like just another night at the office, especially at his old office, where Lee made six of his first 13 starts of the season, all for the Mariners. He is now 4-1 with a 2.28 ERA at Safeco, and in 54 1/3 innings here, Lee has struck out 52 and walked two.
"This is the first time I've gotten to play against a team I played for previously," Lee said. "Obviously you want to pitch well every time, but that gives you a little extra motivation. But it's nice to help the team win tonight."
One positive for the Mariners was the fact that right fielder Ichiro Suzuki continued his annual march toward the 200-hit mark. Ichiro had an infield single in his first at-bat, the 3,500th hit of his professional career (2,222 in the United States, 1,278 in Japan) and another hit to up his season total to 193, putting him seven knocks away from extending his Major League-record string of consecutive 200-hit seasons to 10.
The fact that he got his hits against Cliff Lee made it more impressive.
"He just did kind of what he does," Brown said of the former Mariner and current Ranger headed for the playoffs.
"He's tough on everybody."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.