The gap between who the Mariners are as a team and the Houston Astros — a team they hope to catch, emulate or perhaps actually beat in a single game — feels like an endless expanse.
The disparity in talent, execution and results was never more noticeable than last season and two games into this season. A year ago, the Mariners went 1-18 vs. the Astros, losing all 10 games at Minute Maid Park and rarely looking competitive. That team, which featured a large group of transitional players, retread waiver claims and roster fodder, was the aftermath of an offseason purge of veteran players and salary.
The year’s version of the Mariners, a group featuring 14 players with less than a year of MLB service time but are at least part of the team’s projected future, are 0-2 vs. the Astros with Saturday afternoon’s 7-2 loss.
Reminiscent of last season, and similar to Friday’s loss in the season opener, the Mariners didn’t make the plays necessary to even give themselves a chance.
“Against this ballclub, this lineup is very deep, so if you don’t make a play or turn a double play or catch a ball that should be caught, now you’re extending innings and it’s tough to keep them down for long,” M’s manager Scott Servais said. “Our guys’ effort is really good. We continue to bust it. We’re two games into this and guys are still kind of getting a feel for where they’re at and this environment is certainly a lot different than what we’re used to as well.”
These “plays” on defense are not ghastly three-run errors. Some of them aren’t even scored as errors, but they are plays that must be made when your opponent has a lineup of potent hitters and a collection of starting pitchers that make scoring runs for an offensively challenged team that much more difficult.
Mariners starter Taijuan Walker, who was making his first real start in two years, deserved a better fate while taking the loss. Walker pitched 3 1/3 innings and was charged with five runs on seven hits with a walk and a strikeout.
“Taijuan hung in there and probably didn’t have his best stuff that we’ve seen him have, but he really did battle,” Servais said. “He threw a lot of cutters today and kind of ran out of gas a little bit there in the fourth inning before we took him out.”
Walker’s last regular-season outing as a starter came on April 14, 2018 at Dodger Stadium. It was his third and final outing of that season. He underwent Tommy John surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow 11 days later. After straining the capsule in his shoulder during his recovery, Walker made a token one-inning start in Arizona’s final game of the 2019 season.
This was different. He was facing the reigning American League champions in the place where he made his MLB debut Aug. 30, 2013.
“Today was more like, OK I’m going out there to go as deep as I can,” Walker said. “It actually felt like a real start today. It was definitely nice to get back on the mound. Now I look forward to the next one in six days.”
Given the long layoff plus the short ramp-up during summer camp, it was a respectable outing. Walker’s fastball sat 92-94 mph, and he showed hints of command, feel and effectiveness with his secondary pitches.
“The next one is going to be better,” he said. “My pitch count will be up a little bit more. I can just get comfortable with my routine and going out there and seeing the hitters and starting to read hitters more. I haven’t pitched in a couple years. There were a couple of at-bats where I could have thrown different pitches in the situation, but that just comes with going out there and pitching more.
Had his teammates made a couple of plays, his showing might have been much better.
With one out in the first inning and runners on first and second, Alex Bregman looped a line drive to right field. Second baseman Shed Long made an awkward and mistimed jump and failed to catch a ball that Dee Gordon grabs easily.
It was the four-run fourth inning doomed Walker and the Mariners.
He gave up a leadoff homer to Yuli Gurriel on a backup slider. And he watched as Mallex Smith badly misplayed a line drive in right field that should have been an out with a runner on first. That miscue changed the course of the inning. Walker gave up a double to Kyle Tucker and was removed with his pitch count nearing his 70-pitch limit. His replacement, Brandon Brennan, gave up a two-run single to Martin Maldonado that made it 5-0, ending the Mariners’ hopes.
“They don’t let you off the hook,” M’s outfielder Kyle Lewis said. “If you give them an extra out, they take it and run with it. If you throw to the wrong base, they take it and run with it. It’s an especially challenging task when you face that lineup, it’s 1-9 strong. Any time you slip up, they jump on it and the next thing you know it’s a three-run home run or something that could’ve been avoided.”
Besides Walker appearing to be healthy, the other positives were Lewis’ second homer in as many days — an opposite-field blast to right field off Houston starter Lance McCullers and a strong showing by J.P. Crawford and Kyle Seager at the plate. Crawford had two triples and a single and scored the other run for the Mariners, while Seager had a pair of doubles.
Lewis drove an elevated curveball into the empty stands in right, showing opposing pitchers that simply feeding him a diet of breaking pitches won’t slow his production down.
“I was sticking with idea that he was going to throw a lot of breaking balls and just staying back and trying to go to right-center,” Lewis said. “I wanted to hit a breaking ball just to show people that I could and show myself. You have to understand what ones to swing at and what ones not to swing at. The one I hit out was up and something I could put a good swing on and stay inside of it.”
But the Mariners had two prime chances to put together big innings early against McCullers.
“We had him on the ropes early, but two double play balls allowed him to get going,” Servais said.
The Mariners loaded the bases with one out in the first inning, but Austin Nola grounded into a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play on the first pitch he saw from McCullers. In the second inning, Daniel Vogelbach worked a leadoff walk and Gordon looped a single to left. But Crawford’s one plate appearance without a hit was routine double-play ball that killed the rally chances.
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Ryan Divish to Houston for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.