Coming into Sundays series finale pitting Philadelphias Cole Hamels and Seattles Jason Vargas, anyone would have been hard-pressed to go with Vargas as the left-handed starting pitcher to watch.
Hamels is that good, and brought a 9-2 record and 2.49 ERA into the game.
But there is something happening with the Mariners. It’s subtle, but noteworthy. Seattle players have had their troubles this year, to be sure, but more often than not they have risen to the occasion.
So it was for Vargas, who threw a three-hit shutout to beat Hamels and the Phillies. The Mariners took two of the three-game series and closed once again to within a half game of first place in the American League West.
The Phillies have the best record in baseball, but Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said it base when he said “our foul balls might have been our hardest hits all day.
The Phillies wound up with just six base runners Sunday three singles, two walks and a gift base when Chase Utley struck out on a pitch in that got past Miguel Olivo for a passed ball.
The Phillies are acknowledged to have the best starting rotation in baseball with Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee (both of whom the Mariners missed) joining Hamels and Roy Oswalt on the staff. But after this weekend, when Seattle starters Michael Pineda, Felix Hernandez and Vargas combined to allow just four runs in 24 innings, the Mariners have to be in that conversation.
Pineda allowed one run in six innings en route to a 4-2 win Friday and Vargas threw his second shutout this month Sunday.
The Mariners being just half a game behind Texas for the division lead can be traced directly to the pitching. The team ERA is 3.38, second in the league, and the starters ERA is even better at 3.30.
Seattle starting pitchers have thrown seven or more innings in 37 of their 71 games this year, second in the big leagues only to the Phillies 39. The club record for such things is 84, and that record is well in range 71 games into the season.
The Mariners have only used five starters all year Hernandez, Vargas, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard and Pineda. All have ERAs under 4.00. Vargas is the highest at 3.75, although watching him pitch Sunday, youd have to wonder how anybody scored at will against him.
Sunday probably was the best game of Vargas’ career given the quality of the competition, although Vargas wasnt ready to say so after the game. This was, after all, the third time hes thrown nine innings without allowing a run this year. He shut out Tampa Bay on June 3 with a four-hitter, and got no decision when the Seattle offense went AWOL on May 12 against Baltimore in a game the Mariners lost in extra innings.
“My best? I dont know, Vargas said. “What I know is that its up there with the best games Ive ever pitched.
The central questions in the game were twofold. 1. Would either team ever score? 2. Would Vargas, once given the lead, be allowed to finish?
The first question was answered in the sixth inning when the resurgent Ichiro Suzuki got the fist of his two singles, a bad hop hit past first baseman Ryan Howard. Ichiro took second on Brendan Ryans bunt, then scored when Justin Smoaks soft fly ball fell in no-mans land between shortstop and left field.
“I knew it had a chance, Smoak said. “It was going to be tough.
Once it fell, Ichiro streaked home without drawing a throw. An inning later, rookie Dustin Ackley tripled and scored to make it 2-0.
Meanwhile, Vargas had gone from the fifth inning through the eighth without allowing a base runner. He was over 100 pitches allowed, though, so it was far from certain that hed be allowed to start the ninth, much less finish it.
He did start the ninth, got two quick outs to get his streak of batters retired to 15, then Howard looped a soft single to short center. That prompted a trip from Wedge.
“I wasnt going out there to ask him anything, the manager said. “I was going to talk to him and let him know it was his game.
That was all Vargas wanted to hear.
“I hoped thats what hed tell me, the left-hander said. “I wanted this one, wanted it bad. I wouldnt have it any other way.
On his way back to the dugout, Wedge heard “the loudest crowd Ive heard this year cheering him. A full house was fully behind Wedges decision to let Vargas finish it up, which he did by getting Ben Francisco to fly out.