HOUSTON – It’s almost impossible to see the “if” as in if the Mariners could somehow beat the Astros.
There is only the “when” as in when the Astros defeat the Mariners in one of their myriad ways based largely on novel concepts such as talent and execution.
Leads never feel safe, comebacks seem unlikely, and victory? Well, maybe next year. The gap between first-place team now at 92-50 and the last-place team at 58-84 in the American League West seems wider than the 34 games that separate them in the standings.
There was nothing about Seattle’s most recent failure – a non-descript 7-4 defeat at Minute Maid Park – that indicates the current losing streak vs. the Astros, now at nine games, will end in one of the final four games between the teams this season.
“We had a hard time holding them down tonight,” manager Scott Servais said. “We created a lot of traffic but you have to get big hits to get them in.”
What is there really left to say in this lopsided matchup. The Mariners weren’t blown out, but it also never seemed like they were going to win, even when they were leading, which was brief.
That feeling likely won’t change when they face Justin Verlander, the leading candidate for the American League Cy Young on Saturday night while countering with erratic rookie Yusei Kikuchi. And Sunday, well, they face Gerrit Cole, the other leading candidate for the AL Cy Young, while rolling out Felix Hernandez on a Mariners farewell tour in a place that has been a house of horrors for him in recent years.
A victory isn’t an impossibility for the Mariners despite all past evidence screaming to the contrary. The Astros are without All-Stars George Springer and Carlos Correa, who are on the injured list. And Yuli Gurriel could join them after aggravating a hamstring issue while running the bases in the fifth inning. The beauty of baseball is that the worst team will still win at least 50 games in a season and a hot pitcher can make any team relevant.
But these two teams have played 15 times this season and the Mariners have won once. That lone victory – a 14-1 trouncing – came on June 5, when Seattle scored eight runs off of rookie reliever Brady Rodgers, who hasn’t appeared in a MLB game since that outing.
Sure there have been some close games and tough defeats. But as Servais often reminds people, “this is a results-based game.” And the results against the Astros are bordering on putrid.
The Mariners once again tried an opener in front of Tommy Milone. But rookie Reggie McClain gave up three runs in the first inning, with the Astros aided by his throwing error. It completely negated the two-run lead Seattle’s offense had provided him, which probably should have been more.
Astros starter Framber Valdez struggled to throw strikes in the first inning. After retiring Dylan Moore, the Astros lefty walked the next three batters to load the bases. Tom Murphy singled past a diving Alex Bregman into left field to score a pair of runs. Daniel Vogelbach then drew a walk, but Tim Lopes struck out and Shed Long popped out weakly to third to end the inning.
The Mariners settled for two runs and by the end of the inning they trailed 3-2. The plan was for McClain to go multiple innings if he was effective. He went one. Milone entered in the second inning and was momentarily effective, tossing back-to-back scoreless innings. The Mariners even tied the game at 3-3 in the fourth.
But Josh Reddick hit his 12th homer of the season in the bottom half of the sixth to give the Astros the lead for good. Houston added another run in the fifth.
The Mariners trimmed the Astros’ lead to 5-4 in the top of the sixth when Vogelbach crushed a ball into the Crawford Boxes for his team-leading 30th homer of the season.
“That’s a heck of a year,” Servais said. “It’s not just the power. He understands the strike zone. He’s done pretty well at first base. He’s gotten better over there.”
In a season of many homers in baseball, totaling 30 homers with three weeks left to play in the season is still a serious accomplishment, particularly for a player in his first full season at the MLB level.
“It’s a good mark, but there’s plenty of games left and there’s more to do,” Vogelbach said. “I’m not OK with just 30.”
Mired in a slump since the All-Star break, Vogelbach is starting to fight out of it in the last week.
“The last month and a half hasn’t obviously gone the way I wanted to,” he said. “It’s baseball. You are going to go through skids. You have to keep going and believe that eventually you are going to get out of it. I always believed I was going to get out of it. I believe I’m a good hitter. I believe in myself and the work that I put in. Eventually it was going to happen, you just don’t know when.”
But Vogelbach’s blast was made moot in the bottom of the inning. Milone hit a batter and a double to put runners on second and third with no outs.
Servais called on Dan Altavilla to perform a miracle escape act or limit damage. He struck out Reddick and a ground ball from Jose Altuve allowed Kyle Seager to throw out a runner at home.
But that third out didn’t come soon enough. Michael Brantley singled to center to score a run and during a 14-pitch marathon with Alex Bregman, a passed ball scored another run.
“Danny Altavilla threw ball the really well and almost got through the inning,” Servais said. “Bregman threw that crazy at-bat against him.”