No matter how much a person might try to force themselves to focus on the game being played and forget about all that was missing, including the first three-plus months of the 2020 season because of the coronavirus shutdown, it was impossible to ignore the differences of the Mariners’ first game of this truncated and unique 60-game season at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
The empty seats of a stadium, the missing din produced by that large collection of fans that drowns out the players and coaches yelling on the field, stifles the crack of the bat when ball meets barrel or the booming thump of a catcher’s mitt when receiving a mid-90s fastball. You don’t realize you miss that energy until it’s replaced by fake crowd noise and cardboard cutouts. Normally broadcasts amplify those sounds with field microphones. They won’t be needed this season.
But what was most noticeable, watching through a television broadcast, was the absent earsplitting cacophony of screaming fans and one of the loudest and most obnoxious sound systems in the American League when the Astros’ potent lineup put together its inevitable big inning against a Mariners bullpen that showed why it was expected to struggle this season.
And yet, for all that was different, the result for the Mariners, at least when it comes to playing the Astros, felt very much the same as in seasons past — defeat. The Astros came alive for five runs in the fifth inning — highlighted by Michael Brantley’s three-run homer off reliever Zac Grotz — and cruised to an easy 8-2 victory Friday.
“Certainly the fifth inning got away us,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Against a quality team like the Astros, you have give them 27 outs and no more. And we gave them a few too many outs tonight. You’ve got to make the plays when they’re out there, and we will. There’s no question. We have a much better defensive team than we had last year, and it’ll show up throughout the entire season. It’s just one of those nights.”
For those who have forgotten the carnage of last season where the Mariners went 1-18 against Houston, this was the 11th consecutive loss for Seattle at Minute Maid Park, and 14th consecutive defeat to the Astros. Yes, the Mariners didn’t win a game in Houston last season, going 0-10.
Their last victory at Minute Maid came on Sept. 19, 2018, when the Mariners scored five runs off Dallas Keuchel in the first inning and with a bullpen start using relievers — Matt Festa, Casey Lawrence (the winning pitcher), Adam Warren, Shawn Armstrong, Zach Duke, Justin Grimm and Roenis Elias — shut out Houston in a 9-0 victory. Of those relievers, only Festa remains in the organization. The only position players who appeared in the game still with the Mariners are Kyle Seager, Dee Gordon and Daniel Vogelbach.
For a while Friday, it looked like maybe Seattle’s fortunes might be different in the building where garbage cans were used for more nefarious purposes than as trash receptacles.
The Mariners took a 2-1 lead into the fifth inning thanks to solo homers from Kyle Lewis and Seager off reigning American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
After smashing six homers in his first 10 games of a magical September call-up in 2019, Lewis dominated pitchers during Seattle’s recent three-week summer camp, smashing home run after home run while also showing a more mature and disciplined approach at the plate. But the obvious reality that he was dominating during intrasquad games and doing so against Mariners pitchers lacking in MLB experience or talent, led to thoughts of, was this real, would it translate into the regular season?
Verlander needed all of six pitches to retire Shed Long Jr., Evan White and Seager in order in the first inning. Batting cleanup, Lewis stepped to the plate to start the second inning. He watched a slider away and then gobbled up a 95-mph fastball at the belt, smashing it onto the train tracks above the wall in left field for a solo homer and 1-0 lead. MLB Statcast measured the homer to have an exit velocity of 111 mph, while traveling 436 feet.
“I gave him the first pitch to see how he was going to attack,” Lewis said. “On that second pitch, I thought he’d wanted to get a strike with a fastball so I just tried to be ready to hit. It felt like it’d be a good opportunity to see if I could get one up in the zone and hit it hard.”
Houston answered in the bottom of third against Seattle starter Marco Gonzales. Josh Reddick led off with a double and later scored on Martin Maldonado’s single to left field.
Verlander, who cruised through six innings, allowed two runs on three hits with a walk and seven strikeouts to get the victory. He made only one other mistake in his outing. With one out in the fourth, Seager worked a 2-0 count and took advantage of fastball in the middle, launching a solo homer to right field.
The 2-1 lead lasted for only an inning.
In the fifth, Gonzales gave up a leadoff single to Aledmys Diaz. Seattle should’ve gotten at least one out when Seager made a diving/lunging stop on a hard ground ball off the bat of Maldonado. But his awkward throw from his knees to second wasn’t caught by Long, who watched it hit off his glove and go into the outfield.
Giving away outs against the Astros’ deep lineup isn’t helpful. Gonzales got George Springer to hit a soft roller to the mound for the first out of the inning. But Jose Altuve legged out a ground ball in the hole between shortstop and third base. J.P. Crawford made a nifty backhand play, but an extra step to gather himself made the throw late. Crawford also overlooked Maldonado being overly aggressive going around second base and missed a possible play there instead of the low-chance play against the speedy Altuve.
With Gonzales’ pitch count at 73, Servais decided to go to Grotz to face Alex Bregman.
“The limit was 70-75 tonight,” Servais said. “It was really humid and hot down here. All of our guys will be on a limited pitch count early on.”
Gonzales was noticeably peeved about coming out of the game, which isn’t a new development. He didn’t want to leave in that situation.
“Yeah, of course,” he said “I feel like I created a little bit of a mess out there. Obviously, the competitive side of me wants to finish out that inning and keep us close in that game. That’s just me. That’s just who I am and pitch count or not, limit or not, I want to go out and give us the best chance to win.”
After getting ahead 0-2, Grotz watched as Bregman fouled off two pitches and then dumped a line drive into right field that couldn’t be caught on Mallex Smith’s diving attempt.
Brantley put the game out of reach moments later, turning on a 2-1 split-finger fastball on the inner half of the plate and putting into the empty seats in right field for a three-run homer.
Given a 6-2 lead, Verlander worked another scoreless frame and turned it over to the bullpen to close out. The Astros added another run in the sixth and another in the seventh on a misplayed fly ball in left field.
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Ryan Divish to Houston for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.