J.A. Happ delivered the strong start the Mariners desperately needed Wednesday night before the bullpen nursed a 3-2 lead through some high-anxiety moments in a victory over Houston at Safeco Field.
Bottom line: The Mariners salvaged the final game of the three-game series before heading into Thursday’s open date and put a temporary halt, at least, to their early season miseries.
“Prayer works,” manager Lloyd McClendon quipped. “We were a mess (in the bullpen). We’re cleaned up now. (Happ) was outstanding again. He really, really pounded the zone. He did a tremendous job for us.”
Happ (1-1) gave up two runs and eight hits in 71/3 innings, which marked his third consecutive quality start and lowered his ERA to 2.61. He struck out five and didn’t walk anyone.
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“It’s always the goal (to pitch well),” he said, “but just the way things have unfolded the last few days, I wanted to give the team as good an effort as I could and try to get deep into this ballgame.
“Fortunately, I was able to do that.”
It was enough ... but just barely.
Fernando Rodney worked around a first-and-third threat with one out in the ninth inning after Yoervis Medina walked the bases loaded in the eighth inning before escaping.
“The last two innings,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “we definitely had every chance to get at least a tie if not break it open. But give them credit: they made some pitches at opportune times.”
The Mariners also produced just enough offense against Houston starter Roberto Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona: Three runs in seven innings. Like everything else: Just enough.
Hernandez dropped to 0-2. Rodney got his fourth save in five chances. And the Mariners, while still just 6-9, are just two games behind first-place Houston in the American League West.
In short, as poorly as the Mariners have played, they haven’t really dug much of a hole in the season’s opening weeks.
“It’s not the start we wanted to get off to,” catcher Mike Zunino said, “but I think we’re grinding through it was a team. This was a good win going into an off day.”
This one took a lot of grinding.
The Mariners built a 3-0 lead for Happ by getting two-out RBI singles in the first and fourth innings from Nelson Cruz and Brad Miller sandwiched around a leadoff homer by Zunino in the third.
Cruz’s RBI was his 17th of the season, which tied him with Kansas City catcher Salvy Perez for the American League lead. Zunino’s homer was a rocket to left that stayed just fair.
“When it started hooking,” he said, “I just hoped I’d hit it good enough to get it out before it hooked too much. I didn’t think it was going to start hooking that quick.”
Happ carried s 3-1 lead into the seventh inning but surrendered a leadoff homer to Chris Carter — Carter’s first homer of the season after slugging 37 a year ago.
Colby Rasmus followed with a sharp single to right, but a double-play grounder helped Happ get through the inning with no further problems.
Happ got one out in the eighth before McClendon went to the bullpen for Medina for right-on-right matchups against George Springer and Evan Gattis.
And, boy, then it got interesting.
Medina walked Springer on four pitches, and Gattis sent Cruz to the right-field wall for a leaping catch.
“It was carrying more than I thought,” Cruz said, “but, yeah, I thought I had it.”
Springer then stole second before Jed Lowrie, who had three of the eight hits against Happ, drew a walk. Another four-pitch walk, to Jason Castro, loaded the bases.
McClendon said he stuck with Medina because an overworked bullpen left him with few options: “I had Rodney. If the game’s tied, I had one guy behind him. That’s (Tyler) Olson.”
Medina then hung a first-pitch slider to Carter — a crushable pitch — and got away with it. Two more strikes, and Medina was out of the inning.
“That,” he said, “was a lot of work.”
The Astros then got one-out singles by Jake Marisnick and Jose Altuve in the ninth against Rodney — before Rodney pulled off another escape. Luis Valbuena popped to short, and Springer grounded to second.
“A win is a win,” McClendon said. “I don’t care how you get it.”