HOUSTON — It was more than a cold slap of reality to their face delivered by the Houston Astros. No, this felt like five or six haymakers to the jaw — punishing reminders of which team still runs the American League West and where the upstart Mariners remain in that pecking order.
The juxtaposition of a team hoping to defy expectations and sneak into the playoffs for the first time in 20 years via the second wild card vs. a team that has made the postseason five out of the past six seasons and played in two World Series (winning one) was stark.
And in their home confines, where they aren’t constantly booed for beating up on teams and trash cans in the past, the Astros offered another example of just how far the Mariners have to go in a rebuild that is supposed to turn them into perennial contenders for the division title.
On Friday night at Minute Maid Park, Houston put up a power-laden 12-3 pasting on the Mariners, rocking starter Yusei Kikuchi, rolling up 15 total hits, including eight extra-base hits and scoring at least two runs in each of the first five innings.
Nope, the Mariners aren’t playing the Round Rock Rangers in this series.
“It’s one loss, it happens,” manager Scott Servais said. “We’ll bounce back and get after it again tomorrow. But we needed to have a little bit more out of our starting pitching tonight. We were behind the eight ball real early in this one.”
Kikuchi slogged his way through his worst outing of the season, not making it out of the third inning.
“It starts and ends with starting pitching,” Servais said. “And tonight, Yusei just didn’t have it. They were all over him. His command was obviously off and he walked a couple guys. He tried to get into the slider, and that wasn’t working. He’d throw a couple decent ones, and then he’d hang one. Just not a very consistent night at all with his stuff. He’s struggled last couple times out to find it, and we need to get him back in a good spot.”
He walked off the mound with two outs in the third inning, having allowed seven earned runs on seven hits with three walks and two strikeouts.
“Overall, I kind of feel like they were on all my pitches for the most part, timing-wise,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “And then to fall behind in the count, like I did tonight, just really does not put myself in a great position.”
In his past seven outings since the All-Star break, Kikuchi is 1-3 with a 6.35 ERA, having allowed 24 runs in 35 innings pitched. He’s allowed a whopping 44 hits over that time, including 10 homers.
“It does look much different than what we saw earlier in the year,” Servais said. “The consistency of his pitches and the cut fastball is a huge pitch for him, and he’s just not been able to have that pitch working for him his last few times out. So that’s something we’ve got to work on. We got to find it. We’ve got to get it back. He’s really important to what we’re trying to get done here.”
Kikuchi threw 21 cutters in the game and didn’t get a swing and miss or even the groundballs that he’d normally get when properly executing it. Kikuchi knows he has to re-find that cutter to regain his effectiveness.
“The cutter has been a huge, huge pitch for me the entire year,” he said. “But as of late, I feel like I haven’t commanded it very well. And also, I feel like I’m not creating much movement on it. And so to not have that pitch as of late on, it does not put myself in a great position.”
It was Kikuchi’s shortest outing since his first start of the shortened 2020 season, which also came at Minute Maid Park vs. the Astros. He made it through just 3 2/3 inning, allowing five runs on five hits with four walks and four strikeouts while being charged with the loss.
The last time he failed to make it out of the third inning came in his rookie season on Sept. 13, 2019, when he gave up five runs on 10 hits in 2 1/3 innings vs. the White Sox.
Eight of the balls that the Astros put in play off Kikuchi had exit velocities of at least 100 mph.
Perhaps it was a sign of struggles to come when he walked Jose Altvue — the first hitter of the game — on five pitches. With one out in the inning, Kikuchi left a 95-mph fastball over the middle of the plate that Carlos Correa put off the wall in deep right-center for an RBI triple. A ground ball off the bat of Yordan Alvarez would score Correa and give Houston a 2-0 lead.
Houston made it 4-0 in the second inning when Chas McCormick worked a one-out walk and Kikuchi hung a slider to rookie Jake Meyers that was crushed over the wall in deep left-center.
It got uglier for Kikuchi in the third inning. He gave up a single to Correa and hung another slider — this one on the first pitch to Alvarez, who sent a majestic drive into the walk way above the fence in deep left-center. Another Kikuchi slider, which was actually low and out of the strike zone, was deposited off the signage high above the fence in left field by Yuli Gurriel, giving the Astros back-to-back homers and a 7-0 lead.
After giving up a line-drive double to left field to Aledmys Diaz, Kikuchi was able to get a pair of outs before walking Martin Maldonado. With Kikuchi at 29 pitches in the inning and 72 in the outing, Servais went to his bullpen.
Rookie Wyatt Mills entered and ended the interminable third inning by getting Jose Altuve to lineout to first base. But he wasn’t able to avoid the Astros’ hitting party, giving up three runs in the fourth inning on three hits.
The Astros picked up a pair of runs off Erik Swanson in the fifth inning. But Seattle did get a scoreless frame from Keynan Middleton and two scoreless innings from Yohan Ramirez.
Meanwhile, the Mariners did little against Houston starter Lance McCullers and his array of breaking pitches. He pitched six innings, allowing two runs on five hits with a walk and eight strikeouts. Being handed a 7-0 lead before pitching his third inning of work made things easier.
“McCullers isn’t going to give in and he threw the ball very effectively,” Servais said.
Kyle Seager blasted a solo homer off McCullers, and Abraham Toro added an RBI single. The Mariners’ other run came from Ty France, who had three hits on the night, including a solo homer to deep left field.