ANAHEIM, Calif. — Maybe it changes over the next two games when the Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma take the mound. But on Friday, for a third straight night, the Mariners looked like a club operating on fumes.
Nelson Cruz’s 43rd homer provided an early spark, but the Los Angeles Angels doused it with a four-run first inning before rolling to an 8-4 victory at Angel Stadium.
Just a few days ago, the Mariners were on a September surge and harboring hopes of finishing with a winning record and, if the planets aligned, even sneaking into postseason.
That’s all but gone now.
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“I’m still thinking of October,” designated hitter Nelson Cruz insisted. “That’s the mind-set you have to have. Anything can happen. It’s difficult, but we still have to play for the fans. We have to play for the city.
“Even when we have nothing to play for, we have to play for the fans.”
Friday’s loss dropped the Mariners to 74-80, which means they must win their final eight games to finish about .500. They were also eliminated, officially, from the American League West race.
The Mariners remain mathematically alive for that wild-card spot.
Lefty swingman Vidal Nuno (1-4), forced by circumstances into another spot start, rallied from that four-run first inning by pitching into the fifth. He gave up five runs and nine hits.
The Mariners pulled Nuno after 67 pitches, which makes him a candidate to pitch next week on short rest. That might be necessary because manager Lloyd McClendon is, suddenly, scrambling to fill holes in his rotation.
“I pulled Nuno because I’m not sure about my starter on Tuesday,” McClendon said. “He may have to start for us. I didn’t want his pitch count to get too high.”
The Mariners are in a pinch because, on Thursday, McClendon announced plans to shut down Taijuan Walker because his innings workload and then, a few hours later, saw James Paxton exit a start because of a torn fingernail.
Paxton seems unlikely to make his next scheduled start Tuesday but could recover in time to pitch next weekend.
“I’ll be ready whenever,” Nuno said. “I’ve been ready all year. I know the routine for how to get my arm back in shape. It’s not hurting. That’s the key.”
Los Angeles starter Garrett Richards (15-11) gave up three runs in the first two innings but nothing more in working through the seventh. Four relievers closed out the victory.
By winning, the Angels closed to within one-half game of Houston in the battle for the AL’s final wild-card berth.
A smattering of boos greeted Kyle Seager in his first at-bat in tepid support for Jered Weaver stemming from their Sept. 16 disagreement at Safeco Field. Weaver is scheduled to start Sunday in the series finale.
Seager grounded to second for the second out in the first, but Cruz followed with a no-doubt homer to left-center for a 1-0 lead.
It was Cruz’s 43rd homer of the season, which extended his career high and tied him with former Baltimore teammate Chris Davis for the major-league lead.
For the Mariners, it was downhill from there.
Erick Aybar opened the Angels’ first by pulling Nuno’s first pitch into the left-field corner for a double. Mike Trout’s one-out bloop double to right tied the score.
Albert Pujols followed with a two-run homer to left on a 90-mph fastball on a 1-2 count. His 37th of the year.
“I was throwing that changeup a little too often,” Nuno said. “Trout got that bloop. Then Pujols, I was trying to go in, and I missed my spot. Sure enough, it was a 3-1 ballgame right there.”
Next, C.J. Cron doubled off the center-field wall. He scored on David Freese’s line single to right. The lead was 4-1.
Richards provided the Mariners with the chance for an immediate answer by walking the first two batters in the second inning. Logan Morrison’s single made it 4-2 and put runners at the corners with no outs.
Brad Miller’s chop up the third-base line appeared ready to go foul, but catcher Carlos Perez picked it up and threw wildly to first. Another run scored, and the Mariners had runners at second and third.
That was it, though. Steven Baron took a third strike before Ketel Marte and Seager struck out swinging.
The Mariners’ defense betrayed Nuno in the fourth.
Left fielder Seth Smith misjudged Shane Victorino’s leadoff drive into a double. Marte then had Victorino trapped between second and third by making a nice pick-upon Perez’s grounder.
But Marte threw to first — what, normally, would have been a nice play — as Victorino escaped to third. That prompted the Mariners to shorten their infield, and Johnny Giavotella’s grounder found a hole up the middle.
LA stretched its lead to 6-3 in the sixth against Tony Zych on Giavotella’s two-out RBI triple. Logan Kensing then yielded a two-run homer to Cron in the eighth.
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SATURDAY: Seattle (RHP Felix Hernandez: 18-9, 3.54 ERA) at Los Angeles Angels (LHP Andrew Heaney: 6-3, 3.30), 6:05 p.m., Root Sports, 710-AM