Baek sparkles in a pinch

Baek sparkles in a pinch

SEATTLE -- The way Cha Seung Baek pitched Friday night shows why the Mariners are so reluctant to expose him to other Major League organizations.

Baek retired the last 15 batters he faced and held the Athletics to one hit and one run over six superb innings.

But the yeoman effort came in a relief role and by the time he took over for injured starter Miguel Batista, one batter into the second inning, the Mariners were trailing the Athletics by two runs and never caught up, dropping a 4-3 decision in front of 40,845 at Safeco Field.

Seattle (11-13) has lost three straight, is 1-7 in one-run games this season, and is four games behind the co-leading Athletics and Angels in the AL West.

This is not what they had in mind coming out of Spring Training.

"We're on the verge of becoming a real good ballclub," manager John McLaren insisted. "We're just not quite there yet. Until we start doing the small things, it's going to be hard for us to start putting streaks together because we let the other team off the hook."

Thanks to the solid effort from Baek, who retired 18 of the 20 batters he faced, the Mariners had plenty of at-bats to catch and pass the Athletics, but never came up with the hit they needed when the opportunity was there.

Seattle loaded the bases with none out in the sixth inning and scored two runs, both on sacrifice flies, giving it an American League-high 13 this season. That cut Oakland's lead to one run, and when the Mariners loaded the bases again in the eighth, a come-from-behind victory seemed plausible.

At least until shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt grounded into an inning-ending double play on one of the first pitches he saw from right-handed reliever Andrew Brown.

"We had something going there and swung at a bad pitch," McLaren said. "It has been our Achilles' heel for a long time. When we get runners on third with less than two outs, it's something we just have to do a better job of. I think some of the guys want to do so well, they lose focus, and other teams know this."

As he is prone to do, Betancourt became impatient in the crucial situation and instead of making sure he got a pitch he could drive in the air deep enough to score pinch-runner Miguel Cairo from third base with the tying run, he bounced into his second DP of the season.

"That's why we sent sheets around in Spring Training, showing them how they did in certain counts," McLaren said. "It's an ongoing process, but we just have to do a better job."

Not doing the little things can become big things in close games.

The fact Seattle has lost so many one-run games so early in the season hurts more than blowout losses.

"It does get frustrating when you lose so many one-run games," veteran left fielder Raul Ibanez said. "But this team is going to be fine. We are going to be a lot better. But it's definitely tough when you lose one-run games."

The Mariners had one final shot at sending the series opener into extra innings when Ichiro Suzuki started the ninth inning with a walk off closer Huston Street.

But second baseman Jose Lopez, who was 4-for-4 at the time, popped out trying to sacrifice Ichiro to second. The Mariners center fielder eventually stole second, but was stranded there when Adrian Beltre's bid for a game-tying single to center field was snuffed out on a terrific defensive play by shortstop Bobby Crosby, who made a diving stop on the ball, got back on his feet quickly and gunned down Beltre on a close play at first base.

Asked if he thought about having Ichiro try to steal second with Lopez batting, McLaren said, "I had already talked to Lopez and he was not going to bunt if Street had not side-stepped. He side-stepped and we didn't get the ball down. We had a game plan, but didn't get the bunt down."

Asked about the play, Ichiro said that in that situation, "A bunt was the obvious call at the time."

The outcome took some of the good vibes away from Baek's stellar performance.

He hadn't pitched since April 13, but never showed much rust. He retired three of the four batters he faced in the second inning before surrendering a leadoff double to Emil Brown in the third. Brown eventually scored on a sacrifice fly, giving Oakland (15-9) the run it needed to beat Seattle for the first time in three games this season.

Brown was the last Athletic to reach base off Baek.

"Baek did a great job," McLaren said. "Many people are saying things about Baek, but he hasn't had an opportunity to pitch."

Many believe the reason the right-hander is still on the team is because he must clear waivers to be sent to the Minor Leagues. But he has a good arm and the Mariners would like to keep it in the system, realizing that if they put him on waivers, another organization probably would claim him.

And with quality starting pitching at such a premium, organizations want to hang on to quality pitchers.

Baek said he was a little rusty the first couple of innings, but settled into a groove and "had a lot of fun out there."

"I had a chance to pitch and it felt great," he said. "I know this [long relief] is my job."

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