HOUSTON — Even against a team as weak as the Houston Astros, the Seattle Mariners’ struggles against left-handed starting pitching are difficult to overlook, or in this case overcome.
The Mariners failed to notch a four-game series sweep on Sunday against the worst team in the majors when they were shut down and shut out by rookie left-hander Brett Oberholtzer in a 2-0 loss at Minute Maid Park.
Never heard of Oberholtzer?
Despite its many letters, Oberholtzer is far from a well-known name in major league baseball.
Then again, even the most diehard baseball fans probably couldn’t name more than three or four players on the Houston Astros this season.
Oberholtzer was one of four minor leaguers acquired by the Astros from the Atlanta Braves in
a trade for Michael Bourn in July 2011.
It was a trade many baseball analysts thought Houston general manager Ed Wade got fleeced. None of the players in the trade, including Oberholtzer, was considered a top prospect at the time.
But on Sunday, Oberholtzer looked like an All-Star against the Mariners, tossing nine scoreless innings, allowing four hits with one walk and five strikeouts.
He became the first Astros pitcher to throw a shutout this season.
With the outing, Oberholtzer improved to 4-1 with a 2.79 ERA in nine appearances, including six starts.
“Their guy did a great job against us,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He was a strike-thrower. He had great stuff and used all of his pitches. It felt like he could throw anything at any time. I was impressed.”
Wedge was not so impressed with his hitters, who managed just four singles in the game. Seattle hasn’t had an extra-base hit since Friday night.
The ability to hit left-handed starters has been an issue for the Mariners all season. Seattle’s record in those games is 20-25, with its 3-1 win over Houston on Saturday being one of the wins despite being held to six singles in the game.
And there was the game earlier this season, on July 20 against the Astros at Minute Maid Park, when former Mariners pitcher Erik Bedard started for Houston and Seattle managed just one hit in a 4-2 victory.
Seattle went into Sunday’s game hitting .228 with a .373 slugging percentage against left-handed starters, and the Mariners face left-handers Daniel Duffy (2-0) on Monday and Bruce Chen (6-2) on Tuesday in Kansas City.
“The right-(handed hitters) need to step up, it’s as simple as that,” Wedge said. “We’ve had our struggles against left-handers, and whenever that’s the case, your right-handers, whether it’s switch hitters or straight right-handers, they’re the ones that have to do the damage.
“I feel like our left-handers hang in there pretty well. But our right-handers have to be doing better.”
Of the Mariners’ four hits, two came from switch-hitters – Nick Franklin and Kendrys Morales – and two came from left-handers – Kyle Seager and Brad Miller.
“(Oberholtzer) was just keeping us off balance,” Franklin said. “He mixed up his pitches well and we didn’t have any timely hits to go along with it.”
The lack of offense overshadowed an outstanding outing from Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma. The right-hander tossed seven shutout innings, allowing six hits and striking out seven while walking one.
“I thought Kuma was strong and had something on the end of his pitches today,” Wedge said.
Sixteen of Iwakuma’s outs came via the ground ball or strikeout.
“This is a very aggressive team and we know they’ll swing first pitch,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “So I was just keeping the ball down and relying on the movement on my sinker and my split-finger late in the count.”
Iwakuma got some help from Franklin in the fourth inning. With runners on second and third and two outs, Franklin made a nice diving stop on a hard-hit ground ball L.J. Hoes slapped up the middle. Franklin fired to first base to get the out and save two runs.
Wedge lifted Iwakuma after the seventh inning and 99 pitches.
“We’ve been pretty consistent with how we’ve monitored his workload all year,” Wedge said. “He’s getting pretty close to an innings threshold that’s up there and we are getting deeper in the year. He’d done his job today.”
Iwakuma wasn’t upset, even after the outcome.
“I’m just out there to do my job,” he said. “If the skipper wants me to go another inning, I will go. If not, I’m totally fine with that.”
Wedge called on Charlie Furbush (2-5) to pitch the eighth inning. The lanky left-hander gave up a leadoff double to Jose Altuve, who reached out and poked a pitch into right field.
“He hit it down the line. Can’t do much about it,” Furbush said. “It was the pitch I wanted to throw. He went and got it.”
Jason Castro followed with a screaming double into right-center field to score Altuve.
“I just left it down the middle,” Furbush said.
Castro advanced to third on Chris Carter’s fly ball and then later scored when pinch hitter Brandon Barnes squeeze-bunted him home.
The decision to bunt was a little odd considering that Barnes fouled off an attempted squeeze-bunt on the previous pitch, but Astros manager Bo Porter decided it was worth trying twice.
“Not much you can do,” Wedge said. “Guy did a good job. Short of popping him up or throwing right at him, there isn’t much you can do.”
A 2-0 deficit was way too much for the Mariners to overcome on Sunday with a left-hander on the mound.
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