HOUSTON – A series that has already lived up to the early expectations of lopsided outcomes while displaying the harsh discrepancies of talent and differing trajectories of the two teams was taken to a new level of dominance/ignominy Saturday night.
For the second time this season, or to be exact, the second time in 23 days, the Mariners were held hitless in a game by a combination of pitchers in a 9-0 defeat.
From the outside, there was no assumption of success for the Mariners going against the Houston Astros, who are now at full strength and have the best record in the American League at 72-40. And there hasn’t been. In the two games, the Astros have outscored the Mariners, 19-2. Houston has more home runs (7) than the Mariners have hits (3).
Getting no-hit was just another insult to the many injuries leveled on the Mariners by the AL West juggernaut.
Aaron Sanchez, who was acquired by the Astros from Toronto at the Wednesday trade deadline, delivered an impressive debut, holding the Mariners hitless for six innings. He did hit a batter and issued two walks, but also struck out six. With his pitch count at 92, Astros manager A.J. Hinch removed his new starter.
The trio of Will Harris, Joe Biagini, who was also acquired along with Sanchez from Toronto, and Chris Devenski secured the no-hitter, each working a hitless inning of relief.
“Obviously we didn’t get anything going offensively at all,” manager Scott Servais said. “Not a lot is what I’ve seen out of the offense. Certainly Houston has good pitching and has a style and a way of attacking you and we just haven’t adjusted. You have to score runs on the road to win and we haven’t done it. We’ve had a hard time putting hits together let alone scoring runs.”
If this all seems familiar, well, it happened to the Mariners on July 12 in Anaheim when two Angels pitchers – opener Taylor Cole and finisher Felix Pena — combined to hold Seattle hitless in a 13-0 defeat.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s baseball, sports,” Mallex Smith said of being no-hit twice. “Sometimes the dice roll your way and sometimes they don’t.”
It’s the fifth time in franchise history that the Mariners have been no-hit. For the Astros, it was their 12th no-hitter in franchise history and second combined no-hitter.
If you think being no-hit twice in a season is rare, it’s happened more than you think — seven times since 1971. It actually happened to two teams in 2015, which was the last time it occurred.
The Dodgers were no-hit twice in the span of 10 days — August 21 and August 30, which would be worse than 23 days. But the 2015 Dodgers also won 92 games and won the National League West. The Mets were also no-hit twice in 2015 — June 9 and Oct. 3. They won 90 games and also won their division that year.
The Mariners? Well, they are now 47-66 and not quite the worst team in baseball because four other teams are somehow better at losing.
“Nobody wants to get no-hit, it’s not a good feeling,” said Kyle Seager. “It’s not how we planned it going into tonight. But you have to give them all the credit in the world. They threw the ball really, really well tonight. They executed their pitches and made plays behind them.”
No team has ever been no-hit three times in a season. So the Mariners have 49 games remaining to try and avoid that dubious distinction.
Even worse than being no-hit, the Mariners didn’t really come close to getting a hit in the game. Usually in no-hitters, a team will have to make one or two outstanding defense plays to save it. Not on this night. They struck out eight times and put the ball in play 18 times. Of those 18 balls in play, there were just two balls that had exit velocities of 100 mph — a ground out from Aaron Nola and a fly out from Keon Broxton. The rest was a tepid mixture of weak pop flies and rolled over ground balls.
“We have to find the barrel of the bat,” Servais said. “We got beat up in the zone and below it.”
While the acquisition of Zack Greinke generated much of the attention at the trade deadline, the addition of Sanchez and Biagini could be just as valuable. Sanchez was going through a miserable year with the Blue Jays. A one-time prized prospect and an All-Star in 2016, he was 3-14 with a 6.07 earned-run average in 23 starts for Toronto this season. But the Astros seem to have some sort of magic dust or secret sauce that can turn struggling starters with stellar stuff into dominant forces. It’s worked with Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole. Sanchez has always had outstanding stuff, a four-seam fastball in the mid-90s, a sinking two-seam with good movement, a plus curveball and an improving changeup. In the time since he was acquired, the Astros convinced him to pitch in their style.
“Sanchez pitched differently than he typically does, but going into the game we know what Houston likes to do,” Servais said. “He’s quickly jumped on board and got results.”
Specifically, Sanchez threw his four-seam fastball more often than usual, elevating it in the strike zone — a big part of Houston’s pitching plan for success. In his last two starts, he threw a combined 29 four-seam fastballs. He threw 30 against the Mariners in six innings with many of them in the upper quadrants of the strike zone.
“Typically in his career he’s been more two-seamers and down in the zone,” Servais said.
That success set up his nasty curveball and improved changeup.
“He wasn’t afraid to throw it in all counts,” Smith said of the curveball. “He just pitched with confidence. He wasn’t afraid to walk people and wasn’t afraid to let guys put the ball in play.”
Said Seager: “The changeup was different from what I remember last time. He threw me some really good changeups.”
Meanwhile Mariners starter Marco Gonzales took the loss, grinding through five innings against a difficult lineup.
Gonzales deserved a better first inning than what occurred. After walking George Springer to start the game – hey, at least he didn’t hit a leadoff homer – Gonzales appeared to have struck out Jose Altuve on a check swing.
With Altuve already walking toward the dugout, knowing he’d gone around on the pitch, home-plate umpire Jim Wolf appealed to first-base umpire Nick Mahrley, who surprisingly flashed a safe sign, meaning he didn’t think Altuve went.
Altuve shook his head and gave a little smirk while walking back to the box. The Mariners dugout exploded in anger and Gonzales icily stared down Mahrley, who is normally a Class AAA umpire, for several seconds. Of course Altuve took advantage of the extra strike, smoking a double to the gap.
Michael Brantley followed with a fly ball to left field that Ryan Court misplayed, allowing it to get over his head for an RBI double.
Alex Bregman scored the second run of the inning with a ground ball to short and Yordan Alvarez singled up the middle to make it 3-0.
Gonzales finally retired the next two batters to end an inning that should’ve gone: walk, strikeout, fly out to left and ground out to shortstop for zero runs.
After the avoidable first-inning damage, Gonzales would fight through four more innings, giving up just one more run on a wall-scraping solo homer to right field that made it 4-0. His night was over after the fifth, having thrown 100 pitches and allowing eight hits with two walks and two strikeouts.
The rest of the runs came against the Mariners bullpen. Matt Wisler gave up two runs in one inning of work while Gerson Bautista allowed three runs in two innings.