The last time Kendrys Morales hit a walk-off home run, he learned his lesson in the most difficult and painful way possible.
So while he was more than ecstatic to celebrate his pinch-hit, three-run blast off of A’s closer Grant Balfour in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the Mariners’ a 6-3 win at Safeco Field, Morales controlled himself as he approached his cheering teammates at home plate.
While others jump into the fray to put an exclamation point on the achievement, Morales casually stepped on home plate while his teammates carefully, but gleefully mobbed him.
Why the caution?
Well, the only other time Morales hit a walk-off home run in his career it was followed by immediate excruciating pain and heartbreak.
On May 29, 2010 against the Mariners of all teams, Morales crushed a walk-off grand slam off of then-closer Brandon League to give the Los Angeles Angels a 5-1 win in the bottom of the 10th inning. Like so many other players do so often in the same situation, Morales leaped onto home plate in the midst of his awaiting teammates. But the cheering stopped as Morales collapsed to the ground in pain. His lower left leg was twisted in a sickly mess. His tibia and fibula had both snapped.
It would require a lengthy surgery and an even lengthier rehabilitation process and nearly two seasons for Morales to fully recover. Even now, Morales ices the ankle area where he broke the leg after every game.
He became the cautionary tale for crazy victory celebrations.
So it was understandable and smart to be cautious on Sunday.
But even with a more subdued approach, Morales was still all smiles.
“That was a learning experience for me,” Morales said through a team translator. “I can’t do that anymore, but I had to celebrate this win.”
His teammates still didn’t let him get by without the customary head slaps, some sunflower seeds fired at him by Justin Smoak and even a few exaggerated kicks to the behind from Felix Hernandez. But he walked off the field after this walk-off.
After playing through a stiff lower back for more than a week, Morales was out of the starting line-up.
Mariners’ manager Eric Wedge ordered Morales to not do anything pregame and remain that way until the sixth inning when he could start getting ready for late-inning pinch hit duty.
“He was pretty good about it,” Wedge said of Morales following his orders. “But he was more than ready the last two innings. I think he had his helmet on the last two innings and ready to hit. He was champing at the bit to get up there.”
Wedge found the best opportunity in the bottom of the 10th inning.
Oakland brought in Balfour to start the 10th with the scored tied at 3-3.
With one out, Balfour seemed to have Mike Zunino struck out swinging on a slider in the dirt. However, the ball squirted away from catcher John Jaso toward the Mariners’ dugout. Zunino didn’t hesitate and started sprinting for first. Jaso tracked the ball down and fired a weak and awkward throw to first base, but wasn’t in time.
“In that situation, you have to tell yourself that if it’s in the dirt you have to hustle out of the box,” Zunino said.
As a catcher, Zunino knows how difficult that play can be when the ball bounces that far away.
“It’s really tough,” he said. “You obviously want it to stay close, and if it doesn’t you have to hurry, no matter who is running. It was one of those where I knew if hustled I had a chance.”
With Zunino on first, Michael Saunders singled through the right side on a 3-2 pitch. Zunino was stealing on the plate and was able to advance to third.
Wedge called on Morales to bat for Brendan Ryan.
Morales was simply looking to get a fly ball to score Zunino. He got more than that, jumping on a low fastball and launching it into the stands in right-center.
“I thought it was just a fly ball,” he said. “I didn’t know it was out till it was out.”
It was the second walk-off home run by a pinch hitter in team history. Ken Phelps hit the only other walk-off pinch hit homer on Sept. 3, 1986 against the Detroit Tigers. It was a two-out, two-run homer off Bryan Kelly in the bottom of the ninth of a 2-2 game.
It was the first Mariners walk-off homer since Luis Rodriguez hit one in the 14th inning against the Yankees on Sept. 14, 2011.
The Mariners got a decent outing from starter Jeremy Bonderman. The right-hander worked 5 1/3 innings, giving up two runs on six hits with three walks and two strikeouts.
“I had no command with my curveball,” he said.
He still left with a 3-2 lead thanks to Raul Ibanez, who hit two home runs in the game off of A’s starter Jarrod Parker. Ibanez hit a two-run shot in the first inning and a solo blast in the fourth inning, giving him a team-high 17 on the season.
Brandon Moss tied the game in the eighth inning with a solo homer off of reliever Danny Farquhar.
But Oliver Perez held Oakland scoreless in the ninth and 10th to pick up his second win of the season and setting Morales up to be the hero.
The Morales blast sealed a series win against the A’s. Oakland, which came into Sunday tied for first in the American League West with Texas, has now lost three straight series to the Mariners. Seattle is 8-5 against Oakland this season.
“Any time you are beating a first club, you should gain some confidence from that,” Wedge said. “We’ve played some tough hard baseball. When we win games, it’s tough. We have to grind it out until we get more consistent offensively.”