SEATTLE -- The Mariners may finally have solved their search for an efficient opener as right-hander Matt Wisler provided another two-inning scoreless start on Saturday night.
Now they just have to figure out how to close the deal after the Rays rallied for a 5-4 win at T-Mobile Park, launching three home runs off Tommy Milone after he replaced Wisler. Former Mariners catcher Mike Zunino provided the big blow with a three-run blast in the fifth.
“That one was a good one,” said Zunino, making his first start in Seattle since being traded to the Rays last winter after six seasons with the Mariners. “It's bittersweet in a sense, but it's time to close a chapter and open up a new one. It's nice to be back here and helping this team in any way I can and continue this road trip off on the right foot.”
Wisler, a 26-year-old who was acquired from the Padres on July 4, has tossed six shutout innings with just two hits in four opener opportunities.
That’s a far sight better than the combined 11.74 ERA in 15 1/3 innings in 15 opener attempts by seven other relievers as the Mariners have experimented with the strategy in this rebuilding season.
Wisler started 45 games for the Braves in 2015-16 before converting to more of a bullpen role the past two years, so starting a game isn’t new to him, albeit in shorter bursts.
“He’s embraced it,” manager Scott Servais said. “Some of the guys realize, hey, that can be my niche, if they’re not afraid of it. The big advantage for him is he’s started so many games throughout his career, so he doesn’t get too hyped up.
“He treats it like coming out of the bullpen in that he just throws his pitch, doesn’t come out and try to establish his fastball and work off that, like sometimes is a starter’s mentality. He comes out and uses all his pitches from the get-go and knows it’s going to be short. It’s been pretty sweet for him so far.”
Milone (1-7, 4.70 ERA) pitched well initially behind the opener format, but the veteran lefty has struggled of late. He allowed five runs on six hits in four innings against the Rays and is 0-4 with a 7.40 ERA in his last five outings.
The 32-year-old said his trusty changeup betrayed him in this game, including two that didn’t have their normal finishing bite against Zunino and on another home run by Avisail Garcia.
“Those two weren’t terrible locations, just kind of flat and it’s probably a pitch they were on,” Milone said. “Maybe they were just looking for it and got it in the zone and went after it.”
Zunino is 5-for-10 with three home runs against Milone in his career.
“I’m pretty sure I gave up his first home run, if I remember right,” Milone said.
Catcher Omar Narváez hit his 17th homer of the season -- and first since July 16 -- and Mallex Smith was 2-for-3 with a triple and double, but the Mariners lost for the seventh time in their last eight games in falling to 48-70. The Rays have won 11 of 14 to put themselves in the thick of the American League Wild Card race at 68-50.