Young team learning to walk before it can walk off

Young team learning to walk before it can walk off
ANAHEIM -- Justin Smoak ripped another home run Wednesday and Felix Hernandez turned in a solid start, but the Angels rallied in the bottom of the ninth for a 4-3 victory that showed the Mariners exactly what it takes to become a playoff contender.

Torii Hunter singled home Maicer Izturis with one out in the ninth off rookie reliever Stephen Pryor for the walk-off win, the fifth straight victory for the Halos as they continued hanging close in the American League Wild Card chase.

It was the 10th walk-off hit in the veteran Hunter's career as he delivered after Seattle intentionally walked rookie standout Mike Trout to put runners on first and third to set up the possible double play.

Seattle has played 54 one-run games, the most in the AL, and is 25-29 in those contests.

"We've got a lot of young kids going through an experience right now that is going to help them be a veteran club in a couple years and they'll be better for it," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. "We'll win a lot of these next year just because of all they've gone through, particularly here in September.

"For these teams, every night is a playoff game and that's the atmosphere and what they're going through. And we're right there in the mix with them, fighting all the way."

The win kept the Halos two games back of the A's for the second American League Wild Card berth with a week to go. Four of the Angels' final seven games are still against the Mariners, who have lost nine of their last 12 games in falling to 72-83.

Izturis opened the winning rally with a pinch-hit single, moved to second on a wild pitch and took third on a sacrifice bunt by Peter Bourjos. The Mariners put on Trout to face Hunter, but the veteran delivered with a base hit to right.

"You do what you can to pick your best option there," said Wedge. "Torii did a nice job, didn't try to do too much. He's a veteran guy and just kind of served it out there."

Hunter, who already had tied the game with an RBI single off reliever Josh Kinney in the seventh, thought the Mariners might pitch around him to load the bases. But he knew what to do with Pryor's 2-0 cutter.

"I said, 'Anything in the zone, I'm just going to poke my hands at it and make something happen, hit it in the outfield,' " said Hunter. "When I was younger, I would've tried to hit a three-run jack to win the game."

Pryor suffered his first loss in falling to 3-1 after Kinney failed to hold a one-run lead in the seventh when Wedge summoned his bullpen with Hernandez at 103 pitches.

Hernandez gave up two runs on five hits in six innings, walking two and striking out nine as he remained 13-8 with a 2.86 ERA following his second straight no-decision. Hernandez, who opened the month with three straight losses, is expected to make his final start Monday against the Angels at Safeco Field.

"It's late in the season, he's at a 103 pitches," Wedge said. "We could have sent him back out there but it wouldn't have been the right thing to do with where he's at. He pitched a good ballgame again today. If it was a different situation, you might push him. But I wasn't going to push him tonight."

Hernandez, whose Cy Young hopes have faded with a winless September in which he's gone 0-3 with a 5.70 ERA in five starts, didn't fight the decision.

"That was a lot of pitches and we're in September," he said. "Skip is trying to save my arm. It's good."

Smoak launched his third home run in the past two days, a solo shot in the fourth that moved him into the Mariners' lead with 19 for the year.

Smoak has five home runs in his past 10 games after he needed 66 games to accumulate his previous five home runs in this struggle of a season. But everything has been coming together of late for the 25-year-old, who is 18-for-40 (.450) over his last 11 outings and 22-for-62 (.355) in the month of September.

Smoak went 1-for-4, just missing a second home run when he drove a deep shot to dead center in the sixth and also hitting a hard shot that second baseman Howie Kendrick snared in the ninth. Jesus Montero also drove a ball to the wall in straightaway center in the eighth, but it was one of those nights where everything came up just short for Seattle.

"We've played games like this against these teams all year," Smoak said. "We were talking about how many one-run games we've won and lost earlier today. It's one of those things where the more we play in them, the more comfortable we get. There's no panic button, down by a run or up by a run. But it's always better to come out on top. We just need to win more of these ballgames."

The Mariners have hit a home run in 15 consecutive games, tied for the third-longest streak in franchise history and four shy of the club record set in 1999. Their problem has been coming through with timely hits with runners in scoring position and they were just 1-for-5 there again Wednesday, putting them at 4-for-58 over the past seven-plus games.

Seattle got a clutch RBI single from Brendan Ryan in the third and Franklin Gutierrez followed with a sacrifice fly that tied the game at 2, with Smoak then delivering the go-ahead run on his fourth-inning bomb.

But the Mariners missed a chance to add on in the fifth following Ryan's leadoff double, as C.J. Wilson retired the top of Seattle's lineup in order.

"That's been the name of the game," said Wedge. "That's where we've got to be better."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.