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09/26/08 2:55 AM ET
Mariners can't hold down Guerrero
Angels slugger haunts Seattle in finale with two homers
By Jim Street / MLB.com
SEATTLE -- A hot pitcher met a hot hitter in the ninth inning on Thursday night. The hot hitter won. Mariners closer J.J. Putz was trying to keep the game tied when he faced Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero with a runner on first base and one out. Guerrero swung at the first pitch, a fastball that was darting in on his hands, swung mightily and somehow had the strength to hit the ball over the left-field fence for a home run that saddled the Mariners with a 6-4 loss in front of 16,939 at Safeco Field. "I wish I knew how he did that," Putz said. "I threw that pitch up and in many times like that and gotten ground balls. I mean, it didn't even sound good coming off his bat. Some of the guys on the bench said it sounded like it broke his bat." The sound was deceiving in the sense that left fielder Raul Ibanez had no chance of keeping the ball in the park, though he scaled the wall in an attempt to grab it. The second home run of the game for Guerrero, and his 27th of the season, was the first of his career against Putz, who had held Vlad to five hits in 15 previous at-bats. "I have gotten him out a lot of times on pitches right there. "I usually throw Vlad hard in, off the plate so he can't extend his arms, and that's where the pitch was. It was up and running in on his hands. Somehow, he kept his hands in. You have to tip your hat to him." A two-run home run by shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt in the seventh inning lifted Seattle into a 4-4 deadlock and Putz, who had not surrendered a run at Safeco Field since June 1, intended to keep it tied for at least one more inning. He struck out Garret Anderson on a nasty splitter, but switch-hitting Mark Teixeira drove a pitch into right field for a single. After Reggie Willits went in as a pinch-runner, Guerrero apparently decided that if he liked the first pitch he got, he was going to swing at it. "You can't throw him a pitch that he doesn't like, really," Putz said. "But that's what makes him so good. He is so strong. He's a tough guy to pitch to." Guerrero entered the final game of the four-game series batting .368 in his last 20 games. Not surprisingly, seven of those games were against the Mariners, who he has a .365 career batting average against, including 26 home runs and 77 RBIs. "When he hit it, I thought it was a popup," Putz added. "I was shocked because it sounded like he broke his bat." And just like that, a stretch of games when Putz looked like the J.J. of old was interrupted. He has strung together 15 consecutive scoreless outings at Safeco since surrendering four runs to the Tigers on June 1. His record dropped to 6-5 on the season. The first of Guerrero's two home runs came in the sixth inning and it had some help. He hit a high fly ball to right field and Wladimir Balentien, replacing Ichiro Suzuki for one game (Ichiro was the DH), got his glove on the ball, but was unable to catch it. The ball caromed over the fence and back onto the field. The ruling was immediately called a home run by second base umpire Chuck Meriwether. Mariners manager Jim Riggleman had a brief discussion with the ump, was satisfied with what he heard (and had seen) and didn't request an instant replay. "I thought it hit over the fence, the back rail," he said. "The way it bounced back, it must have hit something back there." "It was a tough play," Riggleman said. "Sometimes you catch it, sometimes you don't." The home run gave the AL West champions a one-run lead and they added another run in the inning off right-handed reliever Randy Messenger. But the Mariners got even an inning later on Betancourt's home run, adding to an already impressive second-half of the season. He walked in the first inning and scored, was robbed of an infield hit in the fifth, and then belted a 2-and-0 pitch from Kevin Jepsen in the seventh over the fence for his seventh home run of the season. "I think he has made great progress," Riggleman said. "He has played better shortstop the second half of the season, he's in better physical condition than he has been all year. Everything about him is better than earlier in the season and it's showing up every day." Aside from a wild streak in the second inning, when he walked three batters, starter Cesar Jimenez had a spiffy second start of the season. He retired the side in order in the first inning and yielded singles in the third and fourth innings before giving way to Messenger with two outs and one on in the fourth. Messenger walked a batter, but then struck out Mike Napoli to end the inning and keep the Mariners in front by on run. It was a two-run lead in the first inning. Ichiro started the inning with his 1,800th career Major League hit -- a single into left-center -- took second on a four-pitch walk to Betancourt and scored his 98th run of the season when Raul Ibanez singled into center field.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.