It took all of three games – the first three of this shortened 2020 Major League Baseball season – but this version of the Seattle Mariners did something that the team couldn’t do in 10 games last season – beat the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be an easy victory for the Mariners, considering that any victory in Houston has been a near impossibility. When they weren’t getting pummeled by the Astros’ potent lineup, they were getting beat in agonizing fashion, including three walk-off defeats last season.
So Sunday, when right-hander Taylor Williams entered the game to protect a two-run lead and earn his first major-league save, well, the possibility of more heartache loomed.
Williams allowed a lead-off double, then later a two-out single to Michael Brantley that brought the ultra-dangerous Alex Bregman to the plate representing the winning run. After falling behind 3-1, Williams painted a fastball on the outside corner and unleashed his revamped slider to strike out Bregman swinging and secure a 7-6 victory.
For those who weren’t counting, the victory snaps a 15-game losing streak to the Astros, including 12 consecutive defeats at Minute Maid.
“Wow, it’s always interesting to get that first win of the year,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “It’s huge. Beating this ballclub, the guys that were on the team last year know how we’ve had a tough time with the Astros down here. We almost let it get away from us.”
With clubhouses limited to players, coaches and staff who are considered Tier 1 by Major League Baseball’s current protocols to battle the spread of COVID-19, Servais tried to offer a succinct description of the atmosphere following the the first victory of the season and the forgettable streak ending.
“We have a lot of really happy young guys,” he said. “That’s as loud of a clubhouse as I’ve heard in a while.”
But the screams and yelling that permeated from the clubhouse and made their way into the audio of his postgame video media session offered a pretty good verification.
“They have a lot of good players over there in that clubhouse and
they’re ready to battle every single day,” said Seattle left fielder Tim Lopes. “I think this clubhouse is up for that challenge. When you’re playing some of the best players in the league, you want to perform well, you want to do well and you want to beat them. And we did that today.”
Williams, who was a standout at Camas High, was a waiver claim from the Brewers during spring training. He wasn’t expected to be the closer. But with Matt Magill being used early to face the heart of the Astros order and Austin Adams and Yoshihisa Hirano on the injured list, he got the call for the ninth.
“The biggest thing is that we won,” he said. “Getting your first save is pretty cool. It’s a pretty surreal moment. I was a Mariners fan growing up. It’s a blessing being able to put this jersey on every single day. Getting my first career save as a Mariner means a lot to me.”
The Mariners, specifically starter Yusei Kikuchi, blew a 4-1 lead, allowing four runs in the fourth inning. But this team, which features 14 players with less than one year of MLB service time, showed some moxie, rallying from the 5-4 deficit with three runs in the eighth inning.
Facing right-hander Chris Devenski, Lopes collected his third hit of the game to start the inning. With two outs, he stole second and scored on Shed Long Jr.’s single to right field.
“He’s a good baserunner and gets jumps,” Servais said of Lopes. “He got the sign and executed and it changed the whole inning.”
With two outs, Kyle Lewis, who has been outstanding in the first three games of the season, delivered the winning runs with a two-out, two-run single to right field. Lewis had a solo homer in each of the first two games, but showed he’s turning into more of a complete hitter.
“He slowed it down and just kind of took what Devenski gave to him,” Servais said. “When the lights are on, he likes to show up. And even though there’s not 40,000 people here, certainly we know a lot of Mariner fans are out there (watching). We made them all happy on Sunday afternoon.”
Seattle’s bullpen, which is filled with inexperienced and inconsistent performers, made the comeback possible, keeping the Astros’ lead to just one run. Seattle got scoreless innings from Magill (fifth), Carl Edwards Jr. (sixth), Dan Altavilla (seventh) and rookie Anthony Misiewicz (eighth).
The Mariners got an uneven, but hopeful start from Kikuchi. It’s something they endured from outing to outing and even inning to inning last season. But there was more reason to hope in Kikuchi’s first start of 2020.
Using a shorter arm swing and refined mechanics that he worked on this past offseason with Driveline Baseball in Kent and input from the Mariners’ pitching coaches, Kikuchi showed significant consistent velocity increase with his fastball, which sat at 94-96 mph and touched 98 on multiple occasions. He also flashed an improved change-up that had more deception and movement than in the past.
He allowed a first-inning run and then came back with two solid innings. But when his teammates turned a 2-1 lead into a 4-1 lead in the fourth on run-scoring doubles from Mallex Smith and Long off Astros starter Zack Greinke, Kikuchi had anything but a shutdown bottom half of the inning. The command of pitches, particularly his fastball, vanished for most of the inning.
Kikuchi walked Jose Altuve, gave up a single to Brantley, walked Bregman and gave up a run-scoring single to Yuli Gurriel. He staved off the looming disasters by striking out Carlos Correa and Taylor Jones, flashing that 98-mph heater. But he couldn’t avoid the implosion. He walked Josh Reddick to force in a run and then gave up a two-run single to Martin Maldonado to end his outing and leave with a 5-4 deficit.
“Yusei’s stuff was really good today,” Servais said. “He had a very good fastball. He threw a lot of fastballs and they were not on it. In the fourth inning, I don’t know if he was trying to be too cautious, or sometimes players get ahead of themselves. He’s thinking we have a nice lead and maybe I can go five, six innings. But you have to stay in the moment. I think he got ahead himself.”
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Ryan Divish to Houston for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.