With all due respect to Alex De Goti, Aledmys Diaz, Jason Castro, Ronnie Dawson, Chase McCormick and Taylor Jones, the Mariners finally faced the real Houston Astros for the first time in the 2021 season.
And the result? Well, it was a similar outcome to many of Seattle’s games at Minute Maid Park over the past five seasons – defeat.
Ten days ago, the Astros limped into T-Mobile Park with a pieced-together team featuring far too many rookies and replacement-level players for a team expected to contend for the American League West title.
Five players were placed on the COVID-19 injured list on April 14, two days before the series with Seattle, including regulars Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado. That’s an All-Star second baseman, who was the AL MVP in 2017 and consistent torturer of Mariners pitching, an All-Star third baseman, who finished second in MVP voting in 2019 and also terrorizes the Mariners, a slugging designated hitter, who was the AL rookie of the year in 2019 and a Gold Glove catcher who shuts down running games.
Houston left Seattle three days later having lost the three-game series, part of its 1-9 stretch of futility.
Had those four players still been on the COVID-19 injured list, the outcome might have changed Monday for the Mariners in what ended up being a 5-2 defeat.
The quartet of Altuve, Bregman, Alvarez and Maldonado accounted for a combined seven hits, three runs scored, three runs batted in.
But it’s also their presence in the lineup that makes things much easier for Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel, who tried and failed to carry the Astros’ offensive load in their absence. Those three players, batting in their normal slots, combined for six hits, a run scored and a run batted in.
“I feel really good with how we match up against this ballclub over there,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “But they are healthy, that is their ‘A’ club, no question about it. You’ve got to really execute. You’ve got to get good at-bats from up and down the lineup and we just weren’t able to put a whole lot together tonight.”
The restored Houston lineup banged around Seattle starter Justus Sheffield for five runs (four earned) on 12 hits with a walk and four strikeouts in 5 1/3 innings.
“I thought he really competed well tonight and battled,” Servais said. “Shef lives on the ground and just off the top my head it seemed like there were maybe six or seven ground balls that got through. He was very aggressive. He was in the strike zone. Unfortunately, that’s a good lineup. It’s a very deep lineup and they strung some things together against him.”
Sheffield was forced to compete despite having minimal command or movement on his slider, which is his best pitch. Of the 27 sliders he threw, only 11 were strikes. And of those 11, he had two called strikes, one swing and miss, two foul balls and six balls put in play. It basically left Sheffield with his sinking fastball and a changeup that’s still a work in progress. That’s difficult against a lineup of veteran hitters who have had produced at the MLB level before the aid of a center-field camera and a trash can.
“I felt like I was doing a pretty good job of getting ahead in counts, getting two strikes on hitters,” Sheffield said. “But once I got to two strikes, I had a tough time putting any of them away. I didn’t have my best slider.”
The Astros grabbed a quick 2-0 lead in the first inning. Altuve led off with a single, stole second base and scored on Alvarez’s deep double off a hanging slider from Sheffield. Gurriel followed with a run-scoring single through the left side.
The Mariners trimmed the lead to 2-1 in the third. Kyle Lewis hit his first homer of the season, sending a prodigious blast over the wall in center field. Statcast measured the distance at 428 feet.
Houston answered with two runs in the fourth when Altuve singled to left on a 1-1 slider that stayed in the middle of the plate to score a pair of runs to make it 4-1.
“It was just a few pitches with two strikes that I left up,” Sheffield said. “The one in the first inning to Alvarez when he hit the double, and then the one that Altuve hit to left field and they end up scoring two. If I could get two pitches back tonight, it’d definitely be those two. It was tough trying to get that thing going.”
Altuve, who suffered through a miserable 2020 season when he posted a .219/.286/.344 slash line in 48 games, has returned to his old form thus far in 2021. And that includes a return to his previous reign of terror against Mariners pitching.
Coming into Monday, he had a career .307/.366/.453 slash line with 33 doubles, two triples, 12 homers and 69 RBI and 79 runs scored against the Mariners in 124 games. You can add a 3-for-5 night with a run scored and two RBI to those numbers.
Seattle’s only other run came on Kyle Seager’s solo homer to right-center.
Servais said he wasn’t pleased with his team’s at-bats against Houston starter Jose Urquidy, who pitched six innings, allowing two runs on five hits with no walks and two strikeouts.
“Not enough offensively tonight,” Servais said. “I’m a little disappointed. We had just seen Urquidy a few days ago and understand how he likes to pitch. He’s going to be up in the zone and we really didn’t make any adjustments on his high fastball tonight. It happens. We’ll get back after it tomorrow.”