On the extremely short list of good things about this shortened 2020 Major League Baseball season, the Mariners playing only seven games in Minute Maid Park, and, after Sunday, not having to return to this personal stadium of hell until the 2021 season might be at the top of it.
Seattle started the 60-game season in Houston with a loss and wrapped up their last game in Houston of the season with a disappointing 3-2 defeat Sunday, watching the Astros mob Kyle Tucker at home plate following his walkoff solo homer in bottom of the ninth.
Tucker managed to keep his hands inside on a 96-mph fastball from right-hander Erik Swanson that was inside and off the plate, pulling it high and far into the empty right-field seats to give the Astros a series victory. Seattle’s visit helped the struggling Astros get back over .500 at 11-10.
The Mariners were victorious in only one of the seven games at Minute Maid this season. A year ago they went 0-10 in Houston, while they were 2-7 in 2018.
A 3-23 record over three seasons isn’t ideal.
Though in the search of moral victories, the Mariners did lose by one run in each of the past two games after giving up nine runs in the first inning and getting drubbed in the series opener Friday.
“Certainly, a disappointing end to a well-pitched ballgame,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said via video call. “It was a disappointing series here. You come into the series and you lose a 2-1 game and a 3-2 game against this team and in this ballpark, you have to be disappointed you don’t win those games.”
The Mariners got another solid start from Justus Sheffield and two scoreless innings from the bullpen before Swanson came into the 2-2 game in the bottom of the ninth.
Swanson struck out Jose Altuve looking on a nasty 98-mph fastball on the inside corner, but the 2-2 fastball to Tucker missed its location, which can be hurtful in Houston.
“Swanny is throwing the ball very hard,” Servais said. “We are seeing a spike up in the velocity, but again it’s also about location, certainly in this ballpark. Most the fly balls tend to not end well. Having the secondary pitches and the confidence in going to them is something that’s going to be key for him.”
After Swanson converted from starting to relieving last season, the Mariners have been pleased with how his stuff and velocity have ticked up in short relief bursts. But he’s still an unfinished product as a reliever in terms of experience and leverage situations.
“Swanny is learning,” Servais said. “I do like the way that he is aggressive and he’s going on the attack, but being able to finish off innings, it’s been a struggle for him the last couple times out. But he’ll get more chances. That’s what this year is about, is to get these guys opportunities and let him learn from them and he’ll be better down the road for it.”
Sheffield pitched six innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on six hits with a walk and four strikeouts. He faced 26 batters and tallied 20 first-pitch strikes.
“I’m just going out there and trying to do the same thing — attack guys, keep the game close and keep us in the ballgame,” Sheffield said. “Unfortunately, we fell short today, but you know that’s my main goal every time I’m out there.”
In his most recent outing against the Rockies, Sheffield worked six shutout innings, allowing four hits with no walks and seven strikeouts.
“He’s throwing strikes and he’s getting his fastball to the glove side which has opened up his slider off that,” Servais said. “We are really excited with the growth and where he’s headed. The projection, it’s going in the right direction. Hopefully he’ll continue to build on those. Once you start getting to three, four or five of those types of outings together, your confidence should grow. He’s got a ton of confidence right now.”
The Astros were able to grab a 1-0 lead in the second inning when it should have ended on Abraham Toro’s ground ball to the right side. However, second baseman Dee Gordon mishandled the relatively routine play, allowing Toro to reach.
As has been the case for the past few seasons, the Astros took advantage of the free out. Martin Maldonado singled to left field and George Springer drove in Toro with a single to right field.
But in a sign of growing poise and maturity, Sheffield didn’t let the inning spin any further out of control. A first-pitch slider to Josh Reddick resulted in a ground ball to second base to end the inning.
“You have to dig deep,” Sheffield said. “I just take a step off the mound, catch my breath and get back to work. You know things are going to happen. You’ve got to expect them to happen and not let them take over your game. I just wanted to continue to make my pitches and I wound up getting the ground ball right back to Dee.”
Seattle answered immediately in the top of the third against Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr. Evan White took a fastball off his rear end to start the inning, stole second, which isn’t easy against Maldonado at catcher, and then scored on Joe Odom’s first major-league hit — a single to right field — to tie the game. The Mariners took a 2-1 lead when Kyle Lewis snapped an 0-for-15 streak with a bloop single to center that scored Odom with two outs.
Houston tied the game in the fourth on a two-out single to center from Maldonado, who has driven in nine runs against Seattle this season.
With Sheffield at 89 pitches, Servais went to his bullpen, a necessary but uneasy decision. Dan Altavilla looked dominant in the seventh, striking out the side on 12 pitches while rookie Joey Gerber worked a 1-2-3 eighth, retiring Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa in order.
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Ryan Divish to Houston for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.