Michael Saunders may not have won the battle with Houston reliever Tony Sipp, but he won the race.
And Saunders’ ability to beat out a bounding grounder between first and second with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning Thursday night proved the difference as the Mariners beat the Houston Astros 3-1 in front of 13,836 at Safeco Field.
“All I did was hit the ball soft and run,’’ Saunders said later.
The score was tied at 1-1 and the Mariners appeared on the verge of blowing a bases-loaded no-outs situation when Saunders chopped a full-count pitch to second.
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Saunders had worked a 1-2 count to 3-2 and swung at a pitch he said was moving away from home, hoping just to make contact.
“Off the bat I hit it so soft that I knew there was a possible chance,’’ said Saunders, a left-handed hitter. “And I saw that the pitcher broke off the mound a little bit late and from that point on I knew it was a foot race.’’
Houston first baseman Jesus Guzman cut the ball off and tossed it to Sipp with the left-handed hitting Saunders beating it fast down the line.
As each converged on first, Saunders slid his left foot into the bag as Sipp took a higher step with his right foot, which proved to be just a split-second too late.
Saunders said the slide was not really intentional, saying “my right foot kind of got out of stride.’’
In fact, he had initially thought about sliding into the bag until realizing it was just a race between he and Sipp.
As for his first thought upon touching first?
“I knew I was safe,’’ he said. The play was reviewed, but replays showed the initial call was correct.
Dustin Ackley, who started the rally with a single to right, scored easily and Stefen Romero, who also had singled, was running on the pitch and came in soon after.
“Just doing what he was supposed to do,’’ said manager Lloyd McClendon of Romero.
That proved enough as the Mariners shut down the Houston offense other than a homer to lead off the game from Jose Altuve off Seattle starter Roenis Elias.
Reliever Dominic Leone pitched a perfect 12
3 innings to get the first win of his major league career as the Mariners improved to 23-23 in what was the first game of a seasonlong 11-game homestand.
Elias did a lot of dancing with danger early, but managed to emerge relatively unharmed,
Altuve hit Elias’ first pitch of the game for a home run, and when Elias walked the next batter, Dexter Fowler, the crowd murmured uncomfortably.
But in what became a trend, Elias retired the next three batters to get out of it.
In the second and third innings, Houston’s first two batters again reached base. But each time, Elias retired the next three batters to keep the game tied.
Elias, though, threw 100 pitches in just 51
3 innings before being pulled.
“He really didn’t have command of all of his pitches,’’ McClendon said of Elias’ early struggles. “But he hung in there and battled and gave us what we needed.’’
The Mariners tied it in the bottom of the first when rookie James Jones walked, then moved to third on an expertly-placed hit-and-run single to right by Saunders. Jones, who later in the game would get a single to extend his hitting streak to 12 games, then scored on sacrifice fly to medium center.
From there, though, the Mariners didn’t get a runner past second until the seventh.
Ackley led off the seventh with a hard-hit drive to right to start the Seattle rally, followed by another by Romero. Nick Franklin then walked to load the bases.
Catcher Mike Zunino struck out, though, on what proved to be the final batter for Houston starter Jarred Cosart.
That brought in Sipp, who had retired all 20 batters he had faced coming into the night, 11 via strikeout.
And that compelled McClendon to call on right-hander Cole Gillespie, who had not had an at-bat since May 12, to pinch-hit for the lefty-swinging Jones.
That looked like an ominous decision when Gillespie popped up to first on a 3-1 pitch.
But Saunders made it moot when he worked the count to 3-2 after Sipp threw two straight pitches into the dirt before hitting a high-hopper wide of first.