This wasn’t the James Paxton the Mariners were hoping to see when he returned Friday night to face Houston after missing 31 games because of a strained left pectoral muscle.
Paxton’s velocity was down 4-5 mph from his usual upper-90s range, and his command was spotty. He lasted just 1 1/3 innings but labored through 50 pitches, including 37 in a rough three-run first inning.
The Astros cuffed Paxton for three runs before he departed and kept the Mariners at arm’s length in rolling to a 5-2 victory at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
"Pax was just out of sync mechanically," manager Scott Servais said. "His arm felt fine. There are no issues there. It’s just his timing and where he was at mechanically, the release point and feeling like he knew where the ball was going."
The loss dropped the Mariners back to .500 at 74-74. They remained 3 1/2 games behind Minnesota in the race for the American League’s final wild-card berth, because the Twins lost to Toronto, but they have just 14 games remaining.
Nor is the rest of the weekend particularly promising; they must now face former Cy Young Award-winners Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in the final two games of the series.
The first inning Friday set the tone.
After Jean Segura opened the game with a squib double past first base, Astros starter Charlie Morton struck out Mitch Haniger, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz.
Houston then sent eight men to the plate and scored three runs while forcing Paxton to throw 37 pitches in his first inning since exiting an Aug. 10 start because of that strained pec.
Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Evan Gattis drove in the runs.
Morton (12-7) permitted just one run in six innings — and that one run stemmed from an offline throw he made to second base in the fifth inning.
Paxton (12-4) little resembled the pitcher who allowed only one run to the Astros in 20 innings over three previous starts. Overall, he had permitted only two runs total in the first inning of his 20 previous starts.
"He hasn’t been out there in a month," Servais said. "What Felix (Hernandez) gave us (Thursday) night was better than expected. Tonight, a little bit less (from Paxton). He just couldn’t get in any rhythm mechanically."
George Springer’s one-out double in the second inning finished Paxton, whose final line showed three runs and four hits along with two walks and and two wild pitches. He faced 10 batters and failed to strike out any of them.
Ryan Garton replaced Paxton and stranded Springer by retiring the next two batters before Yovani Gallardo took over.
Houston extended its lead to 4-1 on Josh Reddick’s two-out RBI single before the Mariners answered with one run in the fifth inning.
After singles by Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia put runners at first and third with one out, the Mariners caught a break when Morton made a poor throw to second on Jean Segura’s potential double-play hopper.
The mistake permitted one run to score and brought the tying run to the plate, but Morton avoided further damage by getting Haniger to ground into a double play.
Houston pushed its lead to 5-1 on Cameron Maybin’s two-out RBI single in the sixth before Segura delivered an RBI single in the seventh.
***Opportunities lost: While Paxton wasn’t sharp, the Mariners only trailed 3-0 when he departed and had numerous opportunities to climb back into the game.
But after scoring 28 runs on 37 hits over the last three games at Texas, their attack managed just one hit in 12 situations Friday with a runner in scoring position. They were 12-for-38 with RISP in those three victories over the Rangers.
"(Morton) got a couple of big double plays," Servais said. "He’s had a good season. He’s certainly pitched well in this park. He keeps the ball at the bottom of the strike zone. He’s a ground-ball guy."
***Zee-roing in on defense: Catcher Mike Zunino made two plus defensive plays that will likely get overlooked in a disappointing loss.
Zunino ran down Alex Bregman’s foul pop despite slamming into the rail of the Houston dugout in for the second out in the second inning with a runner at second base.
Zunino then picked off Correa at first base following a leadoff single in the third inning. Zunino also had two of the Mariners’ nine hits and raised his average to .251. He is 25-for-64 (.391) in his last 19 games.
***Fundamental lapse: It was a mistake that, as it turned out, had no impact, but Haniger gifted the Astros a base in the third inning by overthrowing the cutoff man on Reddick’s two-out RBI single to right field.
Haniger’s decision to throw to the plate was sound in an attempt to get Gattis, who was trying to score from second base. An online throw would have made for a close play.
The throw wasn’t only offline, which can be viewed as a physical mistake, but it was far too high for first baseman Yonder Alonso to even bluff a cutoff. Reddick walked into second, which put another runner in scoring position.
Gallardo pitched around the mistake by retiring the next batter.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners