It felt like Dallas Keuchel barely worked a sweat.
At least compared to James Paxton.
And this Mariners’ defense for that matter.
The Mariners were hacking early, which kept Keuchel’s pitch count low. But manager Scott Servais has stressed the importance of attacking top-notch starting pitchers early and not allowing them to settle in.
They got just enough offense to go with some big pitching and defensive play for a 2-1 victory in the Mariners’ first meeting with the Houston Astros this season – handing the reigning World Series champions their fifth loss in their past six games.
It was Paxton’s first win and it came in the battle of elite left-handers.
“He knows he is very talented, but it’s got to be more than talent,” Servais said. “You got to go out and compete and you got to make adjustments. You start to see the emotions come out late in the game from him and that’s a good thing. I’ve always been a big fan of that when Paxton slams the glove after a big strike out.
“Nice to get him his first win. Hopefully he can build off of that.”
Paxton, Nick Vincent, Juan Nicasio and Edwin Diaz combined to get 27 outs without allowing a run after the Astros’ George Springer did what he frequently seems to do in Seattle – lead off with a home run.
So make that five wins in their past six games for the Mariners.
And thank that in part to the Mariners’ defense. And three big plays in particular.
There was Mitch Haniger’s leaping catch at the wall in right field on reigning American League MVP Jose Altuve’s hard-hit shot with a runner on base. That ended the third inning.
Then Kyle Seager’s bare-hand, on-the-run throw-out of Marwin Gonzales at first base with Yuli Gurriel at second to end the fourth inning. The call stood after a replay review.
And then Haniger, again. This time with Paxton surpassing 100 pitches in the sixth inning. He robbed Gurriel of sure-extra bases when he covered seemingly all of right field and used every bit of his wing span to stretch and snatch the ball for the fly out.
Paxton pointed in recognition and then retired Evan Gattis to get out of the sixth after a season-high 106 pitches.
“That was huge. Haniger was great out there tonight,” Paxton said. “Jumping up on the wall, running down that ball out there – he’s been great and guys have been playing good defense behind me.”
“That’s about as far as you can reach to grab it,” Servais laughed. “I’m glad he’s got a glove as big as it is. We needed every inch of it.”
Meanwhile, Keuchel needed just 96 pitches in eight innings.
And the Mariners (9-5) had nothing but Taylor Motter’s single until Nelson Cruz happened.
Playing in his third game since returning from the 10-day disabled list, Cruz launched a laser-shot over the left-field wall on a 2-2 count for his third home run (in five total games) to tie it up.
Then the bottom of the sixth.
David Freitas has been known more for his defensive than offensive prowess as a catcher. But he continues to produce since he was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma when Mike Zunino headed to the 10-day disabled list.
Freitas led off with a double in the seventh inning. And Dee Gordon followed with a blooper into right field.
Springer slipped on his way to it and that allowed Freitas enough time to score and Gordon to end up at second with a double.
“George slipped, I slipped in the first (inning) – hopefully it gets better,” Gordon said.
And there were still no outs, with the rest of the top of the Mariners’ order to come.
But Jean Segura grounded out, Robinson Cano struck out, Nelson Cruz walked and Kyle Seager struck out to strand Gordon.
The Mariners had another chance with a runner in scoring position in the seventh after Guillermo Heredia’s one-out double. He then reached third on Taylor Motter’s ensuing single, but Freitas struck out and Gordon grounded out.
That looked to be enough, though, with Vincent and Nicasio shutting the Astros down to get six consecutive outs, setting the table for Diaz.
Diaz walked Carlos Correa to lead off the inning but then struck out pinch-hitter Josh Reddick and then Marwin Gonzales (on five consecutive sliders) to pick up his seventh save.
“Eddy had good stuff tonight,” Servais said. “He’s on a nice roll and it’s nice to see him out there often. That means we’re in a good spot.”
Indeed they are. With the Astros’ losing skid and the Mariners’ run, Seattle (9-5) just passed Houston (10-7) by a half-game in the AL West standings. The Angels sit in first place at 13-3.
A couple takeaways:
PITCH COUNT: By the time James Paxton was through the top of the fifth inning he had thrown 91 pitches.
Meanwhile, Dallas Keuchel had thrown 45 to that point.
But both turned out to be effective.
Paxton ended throwing a season-high 106 pitches and got through six innings. It was a good line, especially considering how he rebounded after George Springer led off the game with a solo home run.
“With as hard as he’s throwing he came out firing,” Servais said. “He didn’t need a couple of innings to build the velocity. It was right out of the gate. He knows he needs to get after it early and certainly against this club with all the right-handed hitters they have.
And he did that by establishing the inside part of the plate against a potent Astros lineup, though he did get behind the count on his first pitch to 14 of the 24 batters he faced.
“When you’re throwing 95-97 mph and you’re coming at them on the inside part of the plate, it’s uncomfortable,” Servais said. “It doesn’t happen very often and certainly from the angle he’s throwing at it’s very effective. He executed a really good game plan. You can do that when you’re throwing as hard as he is. Other left-handers who don’r have that kind of stuff can’t get away with it. But he had a really good game plan.”
After that Springer homer, Paxton allowed two hits and struck out seven with three walks after that.
Keuchel cruised, throwing just 96 pitches in eight innings.
SPRINGER DINGER: It took the Astros until the eighth inning to get their first hit in Sunday’s game against 44-year-old Bartolo Colon and the Texas Rangers.
Monday? It took four pitches.
And George Springer rocketed Paxton’s 96-mph fastball 455 feet over the wall in left-center.
It felt like his 500th career leadoff homer against the Mariners. It was actually his sixth and of the 22 he’s hit for his career, the only team that has seen more of those against them is the seven he has against the Rangers.
“I was trying to go down and away and it came back inside,” Paxton said. “I just didn’t execute my pitch and he hit it out.”
It was the second time he’s done that against Paxton, with the other coming in 2016.
“But it’s all about getting back to doing what I’m trying to do,” Paxton said. “Make one pitch at a time. I can’t let one hit or one home run take me out of my game.”
CRUZ CRUSH: Nelson Cruz is clearly still hobbled by the ankle and quad injuries he’s suffered this spring. He’s in his third game back from the disabled list after he sprained his ankle and re-injured that quad slipping on a step in the dugout.
But he’s still plenty strong.
Cruz’s two-out laser-shot over the left field wall gave the Mariners life when they had trailed 1-0 and had yet to figure much out against Keuchel.
And it’s his third home run in five games played.
“Nelson is very strong,” Servais said. “He doesn’t have to hit the ball just perfect for it to go out of the ball park. I think we saw one of those homers tonight. He did not hit that ball well at all but he got just enough.”
Actually, two of his hardest-hit balls the past two games had both been ground outs to shortstop. His 116.3-mph exit velocity on a groundout in Sunday’s game against the Athletics was the ninth-hardest-hit ball of anyone in the major leagues entering Monday. And the eight above it were all homers or hard base hits.
Then he hit another at 116-mph right at shortstop Carlos Correa on Monday.
“That’s baseball, you know,” Cruz said. “Sometimes you get jam-shot hits and the other ones are hard outs.”