Mariners 4 Blue Jays 3
SEATTLE — He was perhaps at the lowest point of his elite career. He’d become a punchline after being accused of sleeping through a game. His team was skidding toward oblivion.
Then, Ken Griffey Jr. awakened.
Seattle’s fading, 40-year-old star emerged for the pinch-hitting chance he reportedly snoozed through two weeks earlier to hit a game-winning single. That capped the Mariners’ three-run rally off AL saves leader Kevin Gregg in the ninth inning and a 4-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday.
“The greatest Mariner in history, coming through with the big hit,” Mike Sweeney said.
He singled to begin the rally off Gregg (0-1), then joined Ichiro Suzuki in giving Junior big, extended hugs in the dugout following the 10th game-ending hit of Griffey’s career.
Seattle snapped a five-game skid. And Griffey’s teammates mobbed him between first and second base.
The Mariners and their fans partied like it was 1995 and baseball’s active leader in home runs (630) and RBIs (1,835) was in his prime — instead of a .191-hitting part-timer with no homers and seven RBIs on his way to retirement.
Nine days ago his teammates, manager Don Wakamatsu and team executives rallied to his defence following a report he was unavailable to pinch-hit in an earlier loss because he was sleeping in the clubhouse.
“The last two weeks were probably the toughest in his career. But he knew we had his back. Probably everyone in Seattle had his back,” Sweeney said.
Wakamatsu simply called the finish “befitting.”
“We couldn’t be more happy for Griff, with all the stuff he’s been through the last could weeks,” said Josh Bard, who tied the game on a sacrifice fly immediately before Griffey’s hit. “You look at ’June Bug’s’ career, what he’s accomplished — I know just from spring training how many times he got his knee drained, how many times he’s played hurt. To me, for anybody (to criticize him), it’s just ridiculous.”
It was the first game-ending hit of Seattle’s disappointing season, which included 14 losses in 17 games this month.
Sweeney, a five-time all-star and the 36-year-old clubhouse co-leader with Junior, stood before a team meeting in Baltimore last week the day after the Griffey-sleeping story broke. He challenged to a fight the teammates who allegedly described the nap to a Tacoma News Tribune reporter. No one fessed up.
On Tuesday Wakamatsu said Milton Bradley, back off the restricted list following two weeks of counselling for emotional issues, would get time as the designated hitter against right-handed pitchers. That would further limit Griffey’s already reduced role.
Griffey dressed quickly Thursday and said he would not talk publicly about his retribution.
Gregg (0-1) had 12 saves in 13 chances before he allowed singles to Sweeney and Jose Lopez then walked Bradley to begin the ninth. Then he walked Casey Kotchman on a full-count pitch to make it 3-2.
After Bard’s sacrifice fly tied, it Griffey emerged to the delight of 20,452 roaring fans. He reached out and pulled a 2-1 fastball on a line into right field. Bradley scored easily from second base.
Shawn Kelley (2-0) pitched the top of the ninth for Seattle, which had been a season-low 12 games under .500 following a 3-2 loss to Toronto Tuesday night.
“To me, it’s walking guys that is unacceptable,” Gregg said, while lauding Griffey as a future Hall of Famer. “I didn’t execute my pitches right there.”
Wakamatsu, Seattle’s usually composed second-year manager, got his first career ejection for arguing Suzuki’s caught-stealing call that ended the eighth. The tirade while his players were emerging from the dugout between innings looked to be a ploy to fire them up. Replays showed Suzuki was indeed out.
Maybe it worked.
“Yeah, obviously,” Wakamatsu said, chuckling.
It sure kept any Mariner from sleeping through what became a dramatic ninth.