It wasn’t despair or regret or even disappointment.
Tom Wilhelmsen felt nothing but pure anger after Saturday’s stunning 5-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
And all of Wilhelmsen’s rage was directed at himself, and himself only.
Given a 4-2 lead in the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners closer blew his third save in his last four save opportunities.
Forget the fact that he had solid 1-2-3 save in Friday’s win over Minnesota, or saved 12 other games this season, the blown saves, specifically the most recent one, left the affable and easygoing Wilhelmsen seething.
“It’s the (expletive) worst thing in the world – letting your team down,” Wilhelmsen said. “There’s nothing else like it. They put you in position to do your job and when you can’t do it, it makes you feel like an (expletive).”
Wilhelmsen’s struggles started from the very moment he stepped on the mound to start the bottom of the ninth.
He walked the first batter he faced – Twins’ No. 9 hitter Pedro Florimon, which is the last thing any closer wants to do.
It was evident that Wilhelmsen’s command was anything but pinpoint.
The struggles got worse as he walked Eduardo Escobar and Joe Maurer to load the bases with no outs. Wilhelmsen threw 14 pitches to the three batters with only four strikes.
“I didn’t throw much for strikes,” he said. “Leadoff walks will get you every time. Then you walk the next two guys, you’re looking for trouble.”
Trouble found him.
Josh Willingham cut the lead to 3-2 on a sacrifice fly to left field that scored Florimon.
Still with runners on first and second, all Wilhelmsen needed was a ground ball for a double play to get out of the inning. It never came.
Instead, he fell behind in the count to Ryan Doumit. The MosesLake product got ahead early in the count 2-0, but Wilhelmsen came back to even the count at 2-2.
But with Wilhelmsen’s command not apparent, Doumit was looking for a fastball and got it, ripping a triple to the right-center gap to score both runners for the win.
“Wilhelmsen’s one of the best,” Doumit said. “He came in and kind of shoved it (Friday). You could tell after the first two hitters that he faced today, he wasn’t sharp. I was looking for one spot and a pitch I could drive, and I got it.”
Wilhelmsen didn’t have much good to say about the pitch. It wasn’t exactly where he wanted it with two strikes.
“It was right down the middle,” he said. “So if he misses, it’s a great pitch. But he knew what was coming and lit it up.”
It was Seattle’s sixth walk-off loss of the season – the most in the big leagues.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge used several relievers – Oliver Perez, Carter Capps, Charlie Furbush – to get to Wilhelmsen. He had rookie Yoervis Medina up and warming in the ninth, but chose to stay with Wilhelmsen even after walking the bases loaded.
“He gets the next guy out, and if he gets a ground ball, the game’s over,” Wedge said. “I mean, he’s your closer. Otherwise, you’re going to go to a guy who has never been in that situation, for the closer. It’s just asking a lot from someone who hasn’t been in that situation. With closers, you live and die with them. He makes a pitch there and puts the ball on the ground, the game’s over, and we win. You’ve got to give him every opportunity.”
The Mariners have dealt with runs of closer struggles like this in past years with Brandon League and before that J.J. Putz. The problem is simple to diagnose.
“He’s just not throwing the baseball where he wants to throw it right now,” Wedge said. “It always makes it tougher when you let that leadoff man get on with a walk or whatever it is. It makes them feel like they’ve got a chance, and it kind of makes it harder for everybody. He’s just not throwing the ball where he wants to. He was so good with that for a long period of time. But he’s been struggling for the last week or so with that.”
Wilhelmsen’s ninth-inning implosion sullied an otherwise pretty solid game for the Mariners.
Seattle got a decent start from Aaron Harang, who pitched six innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on four hits with four strikeouts and two walks.
“I feel like I didn’t have my control right away,” Harang said. “But I was able to battle and get us through those first few innings. I was finally able to calm down and was able to execute pitches later in the game.”
The unearned run came in the second inning when Harang fielded a ball at the mound and somehow tossed it over the head of catcher Kelly Shoppach as Chris Parmelee tried to score from third.
“I saw the runner running which surprised me,” Harang said. “Normally they tell you to make sure it’s past the pitcher. When he took off it kind of threw me for a loop, and I just didn’t set my feet. I was telling myself mentally, ‘don’t airmail one,’ and obviously I did.”
After giving up another run on an RBI single to Brian Dozier that tied the game at 2-2, it looked as though Harang wouldn’t figure in the decision. However, Jason Bay hit his second solo homer of the game off of Twins starter Kevin Correia with two outs in the seventh inning to give Seattle the lead.
Bay now has eight homers this season, equaling the total he had all of last season with the Mets. It was the first time he hit two homers in a game since July 5, 2011.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t get the win out of it,” Bay said. But yeah, I’m just taking advantage of the playing time and just keep swinging.”
Raul Ibanez tacked on another run for the Mariners, scoring Kyle Seager, who also homered in the first inning after Bay, on a single off the wall.
Up 4-2, it was supposed to be closing time for Wilhelmsen, instead it was the Twins celebrating last call.
“He’s going to have to get out there and put these things behind him, take whatever he can from it with regard to learning from it,” Wedge said. “We’ve been through it with closers before. You’re going to have some tough spots during the course of the season.”