Mallex Smith still has things to learn about being an everyday center fielder in the major leagues. But a sure sign that the lessons are starting to sink in came Friday night.
The 26-year-old speedster hit a sharp single up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning to score Kyle Seager and give the Seattle Mariners a 3-2 win over the reeling Detroit Tigers.
It was the first walk-off hit of Smith’s career, and more evidence that he’s maturing.
“I’ve had chances many times before,” Smith said, noting they ended in failure when he tried to swing for the fences. “I just told myself, like, don’t try to be more than who you are. We don’t need a homer, we don’t need a double. We just need a hit. … With age comes knowledge, I guess. Smarter playing, smarter approach.”
In a season filled with far more lows than highs, the young Mariners got a tying, two-run homer from Tom Murphy in the seventh and strong, error-free defense with three timely big plays. Seattle’s bullpen helped the team win its third straight game for the first time since June 19-21.
“You’ve got to learn how to win, and it’s making big plays, it’s executing big pitches late in the game, it’s calling the right pitch,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s everybody doing their job.”
Detroit has lost four straight and 10 of 11. After winning only five games in June, the 30-win Tigers have just two victories in July and are 1-13 overall against the AL West this season.
Tigers starter Daniel Norris entered the seventh with a 2-0 lead on homers by Brandon Dixon and John Hicks, a former Mariner who also went deep Thursday in the series opener.
The left-hander had been keeping the Mariners at bay with a changeup that Seattle batters weren’t expecting. They finally got to him in the seventh with a leadoff double from Daniel Vogelbach before Murphy hit his 10th home run on a 2-2 pitch.
“His pitch count was good — he was going back out,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I mean, he’d earned that. He went back out and two hitters into it, it just didn’t work out. He was frustrated about that, but that’s what happens. He made one bad pitch and it ends up in the seats. And it really wasn’t a bad pitch. The kid reached out and flipped it over.”
Norris, who allowed five hits and struck out eight in 6 1/3 innings, was matched by Seattle starter Yusei Kikuchi, whose only costly mistakes in the game were the homers.
Seattle’s often porous defense — the Mariners have committed 99 errors this year — came up with two big plays to keep the Tigers off the basepaths for Kikuchi.
First baseman Austin Nola turned an unassisted double play in the fourth after Miguel Cabrera’s leadoff single. Dixon hit a grounder to first, where Nola made the force out. Cabrera broke back to first on the grounder and was tagged by Nola as he attempted to slide.
Jeimer Candelario and Niko Goodrum opened the fifth with consecutive singles before Hicks sent a liner to center. Smith charged and made a shoe-top catch, firing quickly to second where Candelario was doubled up.
Kikuchi was pulled after giving up seven hits and striking out four with no walks in 6 2/3 innings. Matt Wisler, Anthony Bass and Roenis Elias combined to strike out five in 2 1/3 innings, allowing just one hit.
Elias (3-2) pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to get the win with help from shortstop J.P. Crawford, who made a diving stab and spinning, no-look throw for the third out.
“I got to the bag and it looked like he threw it over his head like Hakeem Olajuwon over the top,” Nola said. “It was unbelievable. It just came out of nowhere. I was surprised at how much juice it had on the throw.”
Ryan Court almost had the kind of major league debut little kids dream about. Promoted from Triple-A Tacoma earlier in the day, the 31-year-old Mariners rookie was given a pinch-hit opportunity in the ninth. He ripped the ball into left field with two runners on, but hit it right at Goodrum.
Court was the 58th player to appear on the roster this season. That easily leads the major leagues and is three shy of the team record set in 2017.
He was the 13th player to make his big league debut with Seattle this season. The 12th, Tim Lopes, was placed on the seven-day concussion list after taking Drew VerHagen’s fastball to the side of the helmet in Thursday night’s 10-2 win over the Tigers.
“This roster has been crazy,” Servais joked. “I sat down with (Court) to try and figure out what positions he plays. … Right now it’s about timing, being in the right place at the right time.”
Servais said Court will likely see time in the outfield as starters Domingo Santana and Mitch Haniger continue to rehab injuries.
Mariners: Santana (right elbow) looked good during batting practice, hitting a few home runs and driving the ball to the gaps. He could appear as a designated hitter in this series. . Seattle reliever Hunter Strickland is a few days from returning from the 60-day injured list after his third successful relief stint at Triple-A Tacoma on Thursday night. Strickland has not pitched this season after straining his right lat muscle in March. . Felix Hernandez will throw another live batting practice session Sunday instead of going out on a rehab assignment, Servais said. Though he was physically sound, Hernandez struggled with his command Thursday during a 22-pitch session. If he looks better Sunday, he’ll go to the minors next week for an outing of two to three innings. . Ryon Healey, out since May 21 with spinal stenosis, was moved to the 60-day injured list.
Tigers: LHP Tyler Alexander (0-0, 2.25 ERA) makes the third start of his career after picking up his first quality start in a no-decision Sunday at Toronto.
Mariners: LHP Marco Gonzales (11-8, 4.37 ERA) is 6-2 in eight starts since June 7.
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