HOUSTON — Win of the year?
Hell, any time the Mariners win a game in Houston, it’s a candidate for that category because it doesn’t happen often.
At this point in the 2022 season, it’s difficult to think of a better one.
This victory, Seattle’s 55th of the season, was different in so many ways to be memorable.
And if the Mariners make the postseason, which becomes a greater possibility with each passing game, their 5-4 victory on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, a place they rarely have success, will long be remembered as a magical moment in the journey.
“We’ve had some crazy come-from-behind wins and crazy games since I’ve been here, but this one may be near the top of the list with all the stuff that happened and where we’re at,” manager Scott Servais said.
With two outs and runners on second and third and the Mariners trailing by one run, Servais called on Abraham Toro to pinch hit for Julio Rodriguez to avoid a sixth straight loss to the Houston Astros.
Wait, Abraham Toro for Julio Rodriguez?
What kind of strategy is that?
Unfortunately, Servais had no choice but to make the move after Rodriguez was struck by a 97-mph fastball in the back of his right hand on a swing in his previous at-bat in the eighth inning.
Although Rodriguez remained in the game initially, playing center field in the bottom of the eighth inning, he wasn’t comfortable swinging the bat in the ninth and neither was Servais with having him do it. So Toro, the last player on the bench, got the call to pinch hit.
Traded from Houston to the Mariners a year ago this week in a deal that was filled with fan and player acrimony and struggling to find any sort of traction at the plate this season as demands for his demotion permeate on social media, Toro kept it simple against Houston closer Ryan Pressly — swing early and swing at a strike up in the zone.
He jumped on the first pitch from Pressly, pulling a line drive into right field for the go-ahead single that scored both runs.
“I know he likes to throw breaking balls a lot, but I was just trying to look for something up and I wasn’t really guessing,” Toro said. “He’s somebody that’s generally aggressive and I know he likes to attack the zone. I was ready to swing from the get go.”
While having Rodriguez injured and unable to hit in that situation is less than ideal, Servais had confidence in Toro even if fans don’t.
“Huge, huge hit by Abraham Toro,” Servais said. “I know Toro has had his ups and downs throughout the course of this season, but I continue to say, ‘He gets big hits late in games.’ He has done it multiple times for us this year. We’ve got to get off his batting average and all that other stuff, when the game’s on the line, he usually puts a good swing on it and he certainly did tonight. No bigger hit than that one in this entire ballgame.”
Why does Toro feel comfortable in those late-inning moments?
“You just don’t want your emotions to take care of you,” he said. “You want to relax and I think that calms me down when the crowd is going crazy.”
It helps you calm down?
“Yeah, it’s just easier for me like to lock it in when the crowd is going crazy,” he said. “You don’t overthink and you just go about your business.”
With Rodriguez out of the game (he underwent X-rays postgame but the results weren’t known), Dylan Moore having already exited earlier in the game due to back spasms and Sam Haggerty bleeding from a gash in his forehead after spiking his helmet in frustration only to have it bounce back and hit him in the face, Servais had no bench players left from the top of the ninth for the bottom of the inning.
“I was doing like in little league, drawing out the diamond and sliding guys around,” he said.
He pieced together a defense with Ty France at second base, Carlos Santana at first base, Toro in right field and Adam Frazier in center. True to the “ball will find you” rule, closer Paul Sewald’s first out was a fly ball to Frazier in center and the final out was a ground out to France, who hadn’t taken a ground ball at his old position this season.
The Mariners snapped a five-game losing streak against the Astros and can salvage a split of the four-game series with a win Sunday in the final meeting of the two teams in the regular season. Seattle may bring up Jarred Kelenic and possibly another player as insurance for the injuries.
“We’re probably going to see those guys (Astros) in October and it’s going to be a good battle,” Toro said.
This sort of comment isn’t typical for Mariners players in late July. But it seems possible.
“You take any games from these guys, it’s huge,” said shortstop J.P. Crawford. “It’s never an easy game against these guys. But we’re starting to compete with them a lot more. You’re starting to see a lot more close games instead of blowouts and noncompetitive games.”
The Mariners were trending toward another frustrating loss in a place where they’ve won now just seven times in the past 36 meetings.
After taking a 3-0 lead in the first inning off Houston starter Framber Valdez, the Astros chipped away, scoring runs in the fifth and sixth innings and taking a 4-3 lead in the seventh against an overworked Mariners bullpen.
But lefty Ryan Borucki entered with no outs in the seventh and a runner on first base and retired Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker to not let the lead balloon. A scoreless eighth from Erik Swanson set up the ninth inning.
Jesse Winker worked a leadoff walk and Frazier followed with a single. Haggerty’s attempt to sacrifice bunt them over failed and led to his outburst in the dugout. Pinch hitter Cal Raleigh’s ground out to first allowed the runners to move up 90 feet as Toro watched from the on-deck circle.