SEATTLE – Marco Estrada got away with one in the fourth inning, an up-and-away fastball that Nelson Cruz rocked to centre field at 106.9 m.p.h., on a trajectory that carried a hit percentage of 87 per cent. The ball looked sure to go. But at a launch angle of 33 degrees, the Seattle Mariners slugger got under the pitch a touch too much, which allowed Kevin Pillar to run the drive down two feet from the wall, 399 feet from home, for a long, loud out.
“It’s nice to play in a stadium like this,” said Estrada. “I don’t know if our stadium would have held on to that ball.”
It was the type of close call that every no-hitter seems to have, and when Randal Grichuk ranged far to his right to track down a Denard Span liner to open the seventh, you had to wonder if Estrada was destined to flip the script on James Paxton, the opposition starter who no-hit the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on May 8.
Not this time, as Mitch Haniger, the next batter, ripped a groundball down the third-base line for a double that ended Estrada’s bid for the second no-hitter in Blue Jays history. The right-hander, making his second start since coming off the disabled list due to a left glute strain, shook it off to finish the inning, and then was pulled following a leadoff walk to Ryon Healy in the eighth, exiting Safeco Field to a standing ovation from the predominantly Canadian crowd of 41,238 that savoured a 5-1 win.
“That outing in Oakland (on Monday), I felt out of place,” said Estrada. “Everything came together today. I was a little frustrated with my bullpen, but the fans made it seem like a playoff game or something. They gave me a lot of energy, a lot of excitement, a lot of adrenaline was going through. Everything clicked.”
The same goes for the Blue Jays, who have won three straight in Seattle amid a week that has dramatically swung the race for the American League’s second wild card. Before Estrada pitched in Monday’s opener of a three-game series in Oakland, the Mariners were two games up on the Athletics.
But the A’s swept three games from the Blue Jays, who have recovered at their home away from home to take the first three of a four-game set, allowing the Oakland to build a 2.5 game lead on Seattle.
As if the annual stadium takeover wasn’t bad enough.
“We’re playing good here,” said manager John Gibbons. “I will say some of it has to do with the crowd, it energizes us a little bit. It energizes me and I don’t have to do anything. I think there’s something to that. You see a little pep in the step of some of the boys.”
Estrada allowed only a hit and two walks, the one to Healy coming around on a Chris Herrmann sacrifice fly off Ryan Tepera. He threw 93 pitches, after getting up to 69 over four messy innings versus Oakland, in going at least seven innings with only one hit for the fourth time in his career. The last time he threw seven innings was June 22 at Anaheim.
“I was starting to feel it,” said Estrada. “I didn’t want to come out, I was trying to finish this thing. I also know having thrown that many pitches, they were looking out for me. They probably saw I was getting a little fatigued out there. It was the right move. Walking a guy on four pitches, normally that’s a pretty good sign of fatigue.
“I had a great ovation here, man, it was awesome. It felt like a playoff game coming off that field, I had goosebumps. It was pretty cool.”
For a pitcher who would have been traded prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline had he been healthy, the outing is sure to renew interest in him. Trades are more complicated in the August revocable waiver period – the Blue Jays would have to try to clear him through waivers or negotiate a trade with a claiming club – but if he continues to look right, GM Ross Atkins should have an opportunity.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jays continue to look like a completely different club than the one that arrived in the Pacific Northwest a season-worst 11 games under .500. Crisp pitching can do that, and rather than chasing games from the get-go, as they so often have this season, they’ve been able to put heat on the Mariners instead.
“It’s definitely where you want to be,” said Devon Travis, who has five hits in the series so far. “Especially with bullpens nowadays in baseball, the last thing you want is to be behind in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. We’ve been playing good baseball and we have a good ball club. Just trying to have some fun now, win some ballgames, we have a good little mojo going in here and try to keep it rolling.”
Travis ended Paxton’s no-hit run with a double an out into the first inning and then put the Blue Jays ahead in the third, when he followed a Pillar double and Grichuk single with a two-run single after fouling off three two-strike pitches. Aledmys Diaz ripped homer No. 13 in the fifth, a solo shot that made it 3-0, while Justin Smoak’s RBI single in the eighth made it 4-0.
“I was just trying to stay through the middle of the field the whole time and he just kept making pitch after pitch and I was doing my best to foul them off,” said Travis. “I’m just happy I touched them, honestly. Thankfully I was able to sneak it by him.”
After the Mariners got on the board in the bottom half, back-to-back doubles by Diaz and Brandon Drury, who had two hits to break out of an 0-for-15 funk, to make it 5-1 before a naked dude ran across the field and got crushed by security.
The incident added a strange twist to what’s been a strange weekend in which the Blue Jays can do no wrong and the Mariners can do nothing right as hordes of Canadians get rowdy and party.