Nelson Cruz. Who else?
Even on a night when he struck out in three previous at-bats and painfully fouled a ball off his leg, Cruz delivered a two-out RBI single for a 2-1 walk-off victory Friday night over the Boston Red Sox.
Cruz drove a full-count pitch from reliever Junichi Tazawa into the left-field gap that enabled Brad Miller to score easily from second base. It was Cruz’s 30th RBI of the season.
“If they didn’t want to pitch to me,” Cruz said, “they’d walk me right away. I like that challenge. I want to be in that spot.”
Why did the Red Sox choose to pitch to Cruz, who leads the American League in batting and homers and, after his walk-off single, is now tied for the league lead in RBIs?
“That’s a terrible decision on my part,” Boston manager John Farrell said. “We had first base open, (but) we saw Cruz’s first three at-bats. He was chasing some off-speed pitches, and he was 1-for-8 against Tazawa.
“It didn’t work out.”
Boy, this didn’t come easily, though. For much of the game, it appeared the Mariners were going to waste a fine pitching performance for a third consecutive game.
Boston starter Clay Buchholz, who lugged a 5.73 ERA into the game, simply owned the Mariners through eight innings. He permitted just three hits, walked none and struck out 11.
Buchholz only paid for one mistake: Seth Smith hit a two-out homer in the sixth inning.
“He was really good,” Smith said. “I got one pitch and was able to get the barrel to it. Sometimes, that’s how it happens. You scratch a run here and there, and you win a baseball game.”
Friday was one of those sometimes.
Lefty Tommy Layne (0-1) replaced Buchholz to start the ninth inning. Miller reached on a one-out infield single and went to second on Robinson Cano’s grounder to first.
That prompted a pitching change to Tazawa for a right-on-right matchup against Cruz — and also signaled the Red Sox’s willingness to pitch to him.
“I’ve said it before,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “(Cruz) has the ability to slow it down. That guy’s been tough on him in the past, but (Cruz) did a really nice job tonight.”
Tom Wilhelmsen (1-0) got the victory by pitching two innings in relief of J.A. Happ. Wilhelmsen worked around leadoff singles in the eighth and ninth innings.
“He was rested,” McClendon said. “We had a power arm out there that we felt would play well with their bats. And he did.”
Happ pitched seven marvelous innings in limiting the Red Sox to one tainted run and five hits. He lowered his ERA to 2.98 through seven starts but settled for a no-decision.
“I was getting ahead a little better than in my last game,” said Happ, who worked a season-low five innings last Saturday in a victory over Oakland.
“I recognized their guy was going to be really tough early on, so I tried to keep us as close as we could.”
Even so, this game had a similar feel to the Mariners’ two previous games, where they wasted fine starts by Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias in losses to San Diego and Boston.
“Happ threw the ball great also,” Cruz said. “The pitching is truly doing a good job. So the bats have to wake up and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Boston scored its run in the second after Shane Victorino reached on a one-out single, but the inning could have ended when Pablo Sandoval hit a soft liner to Miller at short as Victorino broke for second.
But Miller’s throw hit a retreating Victorino as he circled back to first. Had Victorino gone straight back, it’s a likely double play.
“It was a great play by him, honestly,” Miller said. “Because he’s not in the way and then, at the last minute, he’s in the way.”
As it was, the inning continued. Victorino stole second and scored easily when Xander Bogaerts ripped a triple to center. It stayed 1-0 until Smith’s homer.