SEATTLE -- A week ago, the Mariners were sinking. No passable starting pitching beyond ace Felix Hernandez. No shortage of angst over when Cliff Lee will get healthy to rescue the season.
Now, six wins in seven games later, there's still angst -- over which stellar starter should go when Lee returns.Jason Vargas extended a stretch of strong outings by the rotation in Seattle's 3-1 victory over the struggling Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday night.One night after Doug Fister carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning for a win, Vargas (2-1) allowed just three hits in seven innings against the anemic Orioles.Then again, Baltimore is 2-13, with just two runs and nine hits combined in two games here.Vargas had allowed two runs and five hits in six innings to beat Oakland last week. He is competing with Fister and Ian Snell to keep the final two rotation spots before Lee returns from a strained abdomen to make his Seattle debut, likely at the end of next week.The Mariners' most consistent starter since the beginning of spring training said he isn't thinking beyond this week."That's not up to me," Vargas said of his fate when Lee comes back. "I really don't have an answer for you on that -- other than I will throw a bullpen in a couple days."The 27-year-old former high school quarterback who quit baseball power LSU after just one season and then became a power hitter at Long Beach State relied on a dastardly changeup and precise fastball while allowing the Orioles to get themselves out, as is their norm right now. Vargas didn't throw a pitch faster than 88 mph, yet he retired 19 of 23 batters after Baltimore took a 1-0 lead on Nick Markakis' double in the first inning."We haven't been ahead in the first inning for a long time," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said, almost wistfully. "We wasted a very good performance by [David] Hernandez."Hours after Baltimore demoted Brad Bergesen, its 2009 rookie star starter, to Triple-A, Hernandez (0-3) lost his ninth consecutive decision since Aug. 11. The Orioles have lost 12 consecutive games started by the 24-year-old right-hander.Hernandez allowed three runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He left after consecutive doubles by the previously slumping Adam Moore -- "I forgot what those white things were out there," Moore joked of the bases -- and Jack Wilson. Seattle's No. 8 and 9 hitters made it 3-1.Mark Lowe pitched a scoreless eighth and David Aardsma finished for his sixth save -- and 16th consecutive conversion dating to Aug. 24.Not that many noticed. One night after Safeco Field hosted the smallest crowd in its 10 1/2-year history -- 14,528 -- just 15,931 were covered by the retractable roof on a cool, damp night. It was the third-smallest turnout at the stadium, and three of Safeco Field's lowest five crowd counts have been on this opening homestand.After a single by Ichiro Suzuki and a walk to Chone Figgins leading off the first, Hernandez advanced each with a wild pitch -- a breaking ball that appeared to skip off the lip of infield grass about 8 feet in front of home plate.Franklin Gutierrez drove in Suzuki with a sacrifice fly. Then Milton Bradley singled home Jose Lopez with the go-ahead run.Bradley fist-bumped first-base coach Lee Tinsley after his eighth RBI in eight games and appeared fine, yet left the game with tightness in his left calf minutes later. Eric Byrnes replaced him in left field.The often news-making Bradley is due in Chicago this weekend for the first time since the Cubs traded him this winter following one failed season. The Mariners and White Sox begin a three-game series Friday, and manager Don Wakamatsu expects Bradley to be in the lineup because "it doesn't look like anything serious."Wakamatsu said he will rest Bradley in Wednesday's series finale.After starting the season 1 for 21, Bradley is 6 for 21 (.286) in his last eight games.
Seattle might get Lee back on April 30. The team is considering that debut date after Major League Baseball dropped the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner's five-game suspension for throwing over the head of Arizona's Chris Snyder in an exhibition game, and after Lee breezed through a 70-pitch simulated game. Lee has an 85-pitch minor league rehabilitation start scheduled for Sunday at Triple-A Tacoma. ... Orioles 3B Miguel Tejada (strained groin) wanted to start but Trembley wanted him to only take batting practice instead on a cool night. Tejada could return Wednesday.