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Frustrating finish costs Mariners a sweep

Frustrating finish costs Mariners a sweep

ARLINGTON -- When a team loses as many games as the Mariners have this season, defeats come in many different ways.

But a new way was added to the list on Wednesday.

The Mariners walked off the field in the bottom of the ninth inning with a bizarre final at-bat, 6-5, loss to the Rangers that ranks as the weirdest of the season.

It was bad enough that the Mariners lost a four-run lead heading into the seventh inning -- three of the runs scoring in a wild eighth inning by rookie right-hander Dan Cortes -- but the two-out walk he issued Mitch Moreland and strikeout-wild pitch to pinch-hitting Nelson Cruz in the ninth inning took the cake.

Catcher Guillermo Quiroz retrieved the ball in time to get Cruz at first, but his hurried throw sailed past first baseman Justin Smoak and into right field, and by the time Ichiro Suzuki made a slightly offline throw to the plate, Moreland had huffed and puffed his way around the bases, sliding in with the winning run.

"I can't remember ever losing a ballgame that way, but I just saw it," interim manger Daren Brown said. "A strikeout with a runner on first, and the guy ends up scoring. It was obviously a tough loss."

The loss prevented Seattle (61-97) from sweeping the three-game series from the newly-crowned American League West champions.

Until the eighth inning, it appeared the Mariners would wrap up the sweep.

Left-hander Jason Vargas, making his final start of the season, handed a 5-1 lead to the bullpen after six innings. He was nine outs away from his 10th win and the end to a personal seven-game losing streak.

But it wasn't to be.

First, left-hander Garrett Olson surrendered an unearned run in the seventh after the Mariners squandered a bases-loaded, none-out jam in the sixth. Then Jamey Wright ran into a bind in the eighth when the Rangers had two on with one out.

Enter Cortes.

The hard-throwing 24-year-old, who was brilliant in two relief appearances against the Rays earlier in the road trip, threw nine consecutive balls to force in two runs and a wild pitch that scored the game-tying run.

He retired the final two batters he faced, but his first blown save was in the books.

"Nothing was different," he said. "This time, I didn't spot my fastball or throw it for strikes. I have to learn from that. The next time in situation like that, I have to make sure I don't make the same mistakes.

"I have never lost a game on a strikeout before, but it's all over now."

Unlike his appearances against the Rays, when he started both innings he pitched flawlessly, there were two on when he entered Wednesday's game.

"We're trying to find out what these kids can do," Brown. "I always look at it as, did he come in and get done what we needed to get done? No, he didn't.

"We have seen the good and sometimes we will see the bad with kids. Cortes came in and had trouble finding the strike zone. He got better as the inning went on and was better in the ninth inning.

Vargas was good throughout, holding the Rangers to one unearned run.

He ended the season with a 9-12 record and 3.76 ERA, setting career highs in wins and innings pitched with 192 2/3. His last win came Aug. 14 against the Indians.

"I threw the ball really well for a good amount of the season, until the trip to Cleveland," he said. "I kind of ran into a speed bump after that."

He said he couldn't "pinpoint" a specific reason for the late-season slide.

"I think it's just learning how to finish the season and your body getting acclimated to 31 starts or however many it ended up being. I think I proved I can pitch in this league.

"It's not a question mark if I can go out every five days and have a good start. That takes a lot of weight off my shoulders."

The series finale started superbly for Vargas and the Mariners.

Former Rangers product Justin Smoak slugged a two-run home run in the first inning, his third in the series and the first time in his career that he hit home runs in three consecutive games.

The switch-hitter went 5-for-11 in the series with seven RBIs. But his strikeout in the sixth inning was a key factor in the Mariners not being able to deliver a knockout punch. They had a run in, nobody out and the bases loaded when Franklin Gutierrez struck out, Smoak fanned and Matt Mangini grounded out.

You could almost hear the groans all the way from the general manager's office at Safeco Field.

"Those kind of situations come back to haunt you, which it did," Brown said.

Ichiro continued his climb to the top of the Mariners' all-time hit list with a single to start the inning. It was his 208th hit of the season and 2,238th in his Major League career, 11 behind Edgar Martinez.

Ichiro scooted to third when Chone Figgins doubled to right and both runners scored on Gutierrez's double to left-center. The RBIs hiked Gutierrez's season total to a team-leading 64.

That put him within three RBIs of tying Pat Putnam for the franchise's all-time single-season low (67) to lead the club in a non-strike season, set in 1983.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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