Seattle Mariners

Estrada’s gem pushes M’s toward the brink

Seattle Mariners’ Ketel Marte reacts after striking out with two men on base in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Seattle.
Seattle Mariners’ Ketel Marte reacts after striking out with two men on base in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays, Monday, Sept. 19, 2016, in Seattle. AP

That uphill climb for the Mariners to reach the postseason for the first time in 15 years just got a lot steeper – much to the delight of a loudly partisan Toronto crowd Monday night at Safeco Field.

The Mariners did avoid the indignity of a no-hitter and dialed up a little late excitement, but this was a disappointing 3-2 loss to the Blue Jays that came in front of an overwhelmingly Toronto-blue crowd of 34,809.

So started what is likely the biggest series at Safeco in more than a decade.

The Mariners are now three games behind Toronto and Baltimore in the race for one of the American League’s two wild-card berths. A victory would have closed the gap on the Blue Jays to one game. There are 12 games remaining.

Again, it could have been worse.

Toronto starter Marco Estrada, who is battling a herniated disk, had been hit hard in three of his four previous starts. Not on Monday. Estrada retired the first 11 Mariners before issuing two two-out walks in the fourth inning.

The Mariners didn’t get their first hit until Robinson Cano’s leadoff single in the seventh on a hard grounder back through the box. It was their only hit until there were two outs in the ninth, when Adam Lind singled against Toronto closer Roberto Osuna, and Leonys Martin followed with a two-run homer.

Not enough. Toronto got a two-run homer from Edwin Encarnacion in the third against Mariners starter Taijuan Walker. The winning run proved to be Kevin Pillar’s RBI single in the fourth.

Estrada (9-9) exited after starting the eighth with a four-pitch walk to Leonys Martin. Estrada struck out seven and walked three in a 97-pitch performance.

The Mariners then made it interesting. Reliever Jason Grilli immediately brought the tying run to the plate with a four-pitch walk to pinch hitter Ben Gamel. Grilli struck out Ketel Marte on a 3-2 fastball that might have been off the plate. Nori Aoki flied out, but another walk, to Seth Smith, loaded the bases for Cano.

Toronto replaced Grilli with Osuna, who retired Cano on a fly to deep right.

Osuna then wobbled through the ninth for his 34th save in 37 chances.

Walker (6-11) pitched a three-hit shutout against the Angels in his last start. This time, he gave up three runs and five hits in 5 1/3 innings before departing with runners on first and second after two walks.

In came Drew Storen, who started the season in Toronto before coming to the Mariners in a July 25 trade for reliever Joaquin Benoit. Storen stranded both runners by striking out two hitters.

By the sixth inning, the possibility of a no-hitter began to grow. Aoki tried to end it with a two-strike bunt, but the ball rolled foul for a strikeout.

Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson, the reigning A.L. Most Valuable Player, was ejected in the seventh by umpire Chris Conroy for arguing a called third strike from Storen. The PitchF/x computer indicated the ball was low, but Donaldson’s vehement reaction pretty much sealed his fate.

Walker opened the game by striking out the first two hitters before getting hit in the left wrist by an Encarnacion line drive. The ball ricocheted into right-center field for a single. A four-pitch walk to Jose Bautista moved Encarnacion to second, but Walker stranded both runners when Russell Martin flied out to center.

Pillar opened the Toronto third with a squib single when Lind couldn’t dig out a low throw from Walker at first. Pillar stole second.

Walker retired the next two hitters, but Encarnacion crushed an 0-1 pitch for a no-doubt homer to left. It was No. 41 for Encarnacion, and the Blue Jays led 2-0.

Troy Tulowitzki started the Toronto fourth with a double off the center-field wall and went to third on Carrera’s sacrifice. Walker struck out Melvin Upton, but Pillar punched an 0-2 fastball to right for a single.

The Mariners didn’t get the first runner until Cano’s two-out walk in the fourth inning. Nelson Cruz followed with another walk, but Pillar made a sliding catch on Kyle Seager’s sinking liner for the third out.

PLAY OF THE GAME: The Mariners got the tying run to the plate with two outs in the fourth inning after Toronto started Marco Estrada issued successive walks while pitching with a 3-0 lead.

Kyle Seager then sent a sinking liner into center that initially looked like an RBI single — until Kevin Pillar charged in and made a sliding catch.

PLUS: Reliever Drew Storen faced four of his former Toronto teammates and struck out three of them. …reliever Evan Scribner pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings and has not allowed a run in 7 1/3 innings over six appearances since being activated from the 60-day disabled list.

MINUS: The Blue Jays stole three bases, and in each case, catcher Mike Zunino didn’t have much of a chance.