After eight straight victories, the Mariners were probably due for a clunker Friday night — and, boy, this sure qualifies: a 6-0 loss to the Houston Astros at Safeco Field.
It was, predictably, a costly stumble for the Mariners in what is now a steeper uphill climb to postseason. They fell three games behind Baltimore and Toronto in the race for one of the American League’s wild-card berths.
Three games back with 15 games remaining.
It is doubly sobering for the Mariners that it was Felix Hernandez, their long-time ace, whom the Astros clubbed around. Hernandez (11-6) gave up six runs, five earned, in just 4 1/3 innings.
"It’s disappointing," he said. "It’s a poor performance by me…I’ve got to make better pitches than what I did tonight. I was in the middle, and that’s why they got me."
Two years ago, with the Mariners making a similar late-season push, Hernandez stumbled badly in a start at Toronto. It probably cost him, fairly or not, the Cy Young Award.
No similar personal milestone was on the line Friday but, for the King, this was another big-game black eye. It’s also worth noting that, two years ago, the Mariners finished one game out in the wild-card standings.
This was more, though, than a poor start by Hernandez. The Mariners made three infield errors in the first six innings. They had just two hits against Houston starter Collin McHugh in seven innings.
"His breaking ball," Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "It all starts and ends with his breaking ball. When he can throw it for a strike, he’s really good."
Let’s pause there a second.
McHugh (11-10) entered the game with a 6.04 ERA in his 15 road starts. That number jumps to 6.65 if you take away two earlier victories at Safeco Field.
In all, McHugh is 8-1 in his last nine starts against the Mariners. He is also 6-0 with a 1.36 ERA in six career starts at Safeco Field.
So whatever it is that everyone else has figured out against him continues to elude the Mariners.
"He elevates that fastball when he needs to," designated hitter Nelson Cruz said, "and then he throws that slow pitch, that curveball. They beat us tonight. There’s nothing you can do on a game like this. We got beat."
The Astros completed their shutout with one inning apiece from James Hoyt and Tony Sipp.
"We’ll wipe this one off," manager Scott Servais said. "We’ve still got a lot of ball left to play, and we’re still in a very competitive spot. Just not the kind of outing we wanted to have tonight."
Hernandez got two quick outs in the first inning before running into trouble. Jose Altuve blooped a single into center, and Carlos Correa followed with a walk. A wild pitch moved the runners to second and third.
While Hernandez escaped when Evan Gattis grounded out to short, it was a brief reprieve.
Colby Rasmus started the second inning with a walk and went to second on Marwin Gonzalez’s well-placed bunt single. The runners moved to second and third on Jason Castro’s sacrifice bunt.
Jake Marisnick then yanked a first-pitch fastball into the left-field corner for a two-run double. Only a fine running catch by center fielder Leonys Martin on Yuli Gurriel’s two-out prevented further damage.
Houston added another run in the third inning after shortstop Ketel Marte committed the first of his two errors by misplaying Altuve’s leadoff grounder. Correa followed with an RBI double into the left-field corner.
Marisnick’s leadoff single in the fourth inning led to another run. He stole second and scored on Gurriel’s single to left by sliding around Mike Zunino’s tag at the plate.
The Mariners finally got their first hit against McHugh when Nori Aoki led off the fourth with a single through the right side. McHugh retired the next three batters.
Gattis then opened the fifth inning with a homer. When Gonzalez did the same with one out, it was 6-0, and Hernandez departed.
"Felix pitches to the areas that he wants you to chase," Hinch said. "We were very good with our game plan to get pitches up and over the plate."
PLAY OF THE GAME: Center fielder Leonys Martin saved at least one run in the second inning by chasing down Yuli Gurriel’s deep drive into the left-center gap. So, yes, it could have been worse.
PLUS: Some good bullpen work, but that’s about it. Rookie reliever Dan Altavilla pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings after replacing Felix Hernandez. Altavilla has a 1.29 ERA in nine appearances. Vidal Nuno, Arquimedes Caminero and Pat Venditte also had scoreless outings.
MINUS: Kyle Seager broke for second base with two outs in the second inning when a pitch rolled a few feet away from Houston catcher Jason Castro. Seager was thrown out easily…shortstop Ketel Marte whiffed on a leadoff hopper by Jose Altuve for an error in the third inning. It led to an unearned run. Marte committed a second error, his 19th of the season, in the sixth inning…rookie first baseman Dan Vogelbach struck out in each of his three at-bats.
STAT PACK: The Mariners have lost seven of their last eight games against the Astros. The two teams play five more times in the final 15 games.
QUOTABLE: "That was a bad ballgame," manager Scott Servais said. "We didn’t pitch very well, and the defense was not good. McHugh pitched a very good ballgame. He certainly had us off-balance.
"It’s frustrating. We’ve been playing really good ball and then to come in here and throw a clunker out there, it’s not exactly what we were looking for tonight. It does happen."
SHORT HOPS: The Mariners have been shut out six times this season, including five times at home…the Mariners’ consecutive-game streak of hitting at least one home run ended at 14 games, which matched an earlier run for the longest of the season…Felix Hernandez is 3-4 with a 4.07 ERA in nine career starts against the Astros.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners