Under normal or even the most optimal of circumstances, a bullpen start is not an ideal scenario for any team. Usually it’s a last resort when there are no other options.
For the 2020 Mariners and their collection of inexperienced, inconsistent and ineffective relievers, the premise of a bullpen start for any reason isn’t quite like self-immolation, but more like a root canal without being given the option of numbing shots.
Roughly an hour before the first pitch at Minute Maid Park, the Mariners determined that left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who was scheduled to start the series opener against the Astros, would not be able to take the mound for his fourth start of the season due to neck spasms.
That meant a bullpen that came into the game with a 6.78 ERA (second worst in MLB), 17 homers allowed (tied for the most in MLB), 47 walks (tied for second most), 12 hit-batters (most in MLB) and an .860 on-base plus slugging percentage allowed (second worst) would have to cover nine innings against a wounded Houston team that was looking to get healthy against a team it bullied to the point of embarrassment last season.
It went worse than even expected in an 11-1 drubbing of Seattle by Houston. And yet for those who watched the first two innings, the possibility of a worse score seemed plausible.
The Mariners now have lost 22 of their past 24 games to the Astros, including 13 of their past 14 at Minute Maid Park.
“Obviously, not a lot of positives in that ballgame tonight,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “It was a struggle, from finding out about an hour before the game that Yusei was not going to be able to go. We needed to go to some of our length guys in the bullpen and it got away from us in the first inning. We didn’t play great defense either.”
There is no exact diagnosis for Kikuchi, who arrived at the park with the discomfort, received treatment and then tried to throw some in the batting cage.
“He just wasn’t going to be able to post,” Servais said. “It’s a spasm thing in his neck and I hope he’s able to maybe bounce back and we can slide him into the rotation and not have to wait a whole another week before he pitches. That’s what we’re hoping for. We’ll probably know more tomorrow.”
Left-hander Nestor Cortes, who has pitched in both roles and made 80 career starts in the minor leagues, was chosen to make his second big-league start.
“I was shagging in the outfield and got brought in and was told I was going to start,” he said. “I was happy when I heard it.”
That happiness dissipated quickly.
Though it was brief in terms of innings, technically one-third of an inning, Cortes’ outing felt more interminable than pre-COVID Friday traffic on I-5.
“It’s not a fun situation to be in,” Servais said. “It happens throughout the course of the season, you’re going to have a game or two like that. You lose the starter like that, there are not many teams that are going to be able to rebound and have somebody step in and give you five innings. You are just hoping to take it an inning at a time and we weren’t able to get through that first inning. “
Given a 1-0 lead thanks to Kyle Seager’s first-inning sacrifice fly, Cortes recorded just one out – a strikeout of the slumping Jose Altuve — while facing all nine Astros batters in the lineup.
When George Springer hit a fly out to start the bottom of the first, but was awarded first base due to catcher’s interference, it was a sign of things to come.
Cortes gave up a single to Josh Reddick and an error by Kyle Lewis allowed both runners to get into scoring position.
After striking out Altuve, whose batting average is well below .200, Cortes gave up a run-scoring infield single to Alex Bregman and then served up a three-run homer to Yordan Alvarez in his first at-bat of the 2020 season. The hulking designated hitter had been delayed by a positive test for COVID-19, but his return and power presence can only help the Astros’ lineup.
Yuli Gurriel followed with a line drive into the Crawford Boxes in left field for a solo homer that made it 5-1.
The carnage continued as Cortes walked Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker and then gave up a double to No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado that scored both runners to push the lead to 7-1.
“I got to do a better job of staying focused and making pitches,” Cortes said. “I felt like I was unlucky for a little bit, but that doesn’t take away that you just have to keep on executing pitches and keep going.”
With Cortes having thrown 41 pitches (19 strikes) and the possibility of another two outs requiring about 41 more pitches, Servais went to reliever Bryan Shaw to try and stop the bleeding.
“You are just trying to get through the first inning and you don’t want to run through four or five guys in game that can help you win the next day’s game,” Servais said. “But as early as that? I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that before in the first inning.”
Cortes, who hadn’t pitched in six days, felt discomfort in his triceps after the outing.
“I got it checked out,” he said. “They said it was inflammation and we’ll go day by day and see how I feel. I felt good coming into the game. I’m not trying to make excuses. I have to make better pitches.”
Shaw, who was recently called up after posting a 27.00 ERA in his first four outings, gave up a single to Springer and a double to Reddick that scored Maldonado.
An error on a Altuve ground ball by shortstop J.P. Crawford allowed the ninth run of the inning to score.
There hardly seemed to be an end to the inning in sight.
But Seager kept the Astros to just nine runs with a brilliant diving stop on Alvarez’s hard ground ball into the shift to start an inning-ending double play.
A total of 14 Astros came to the plate in that inning, scoring nine runs (eight earned) on five hits with three walks aided by three Seattle errors while taking almost 45 minutes.
Cortes was credited with one-third of an inning pitched, allowing seven earned runs along with an unearned run on five hits with two walks and a strikeout.
The Astros reached double figures in the second as Shaw gave up a leadoff triple to Gurriel, who scored on a Correa ground ball. Shaw was charged with two runs in 1 2/3 innings of work, lowering his ERA to 18.00.
To be fair, much as this season, not every reliever struggled. Rookie right-hander Yohan Ramirez, who was a Rule 5 draft choice out of the Astros organization, threw three innings, allowing one run on one hit with three walks and four strikeouts. Newcomer Brady Lail, who was claimed off waivers Monday and added to the roster before the game, tossed two scoreless innings with no hits and a walk and three strikeouts.
Meanwhile, Astros starter Framber Valdez, who has had an inconsistent relationship with the strike zone for his brief big-league career, somehow was able right himself after a 29-pitch first inning that featured a pair of walks. Perhaps it was the lengthy rest and eight runs of cushion that allowed him to get through six innings, allowing the one run on four hits with a three walks and five strikeouts.
Editor’s note: The Times declined to send reporter Ryan Divish to Houston for this game because of COVID-19 safety concerns.