The key out Sunday for the Mariners came when former closer Steve Cishek retired Houston’s Jose Altuve on a grounder to third base for the final out in the eighth inning with two runners on base.
Rookie Edwin Diaz, who supplanted Cishek as the club’s current closer, then worked the ninth inning in a non-save situation as the Mariners reinvigorated their postseason push by avoiding a weekend sweep with a 7-3 victory over the Astros.
"Sometimes, the game can be won in the eighth inning," manager Scott Servais said, "or getting the last out in the seventh inning. (Sunday’s) game came down to that out. (Cishek) got the big out for us. It’s very unselfish and much appreciated."
It’s unselfish and appreciated because this isn’t what Cishek signed up for. He agreed last December to a two-year contract as a free agent in a large part because the Mariners offered him the opportunity to close.
And for four months, Cishek was among the league leaders with 25 saves — until a torn labrum in his left hip forced him to the disabled list. He returned just 15 days later but, by then, Diaz was well-established as his replacement.
Cishek quietly accepted his new role as a set-up reliever.
"Obviously, it’s (not) the job you want," he said, "but Edwin is doing a phenomenal job. The bottom line is we’re winning ballgames. That’s all I care about.
"So my job is to set him up to finish out the game, and I take a lot of pride in that. I’m glad to be able to do it."
From the Mariners’ perspective, the decision to go with Diaz was a no-brainer. He has been dominant; he entered Monday with 16 saves in 17 chances, a 2.20 ERA and 77 strikeouts (and just 15 walks) in 45 innings.
But getting a veteran closer — one who has 102 saves over the last three-plus seasons — to buy in…that’s another matter. Particularly when that veteran’s salary swells considerably through performance bonuses when he closes out games.
Cishek made it easy by accepting the obvious as, well, obvious.
"I mean, (Diaz) throws 100 (mph) with a wipeout slider…," Cishek said. "I’m not going to sit here and complain about it. At the end of the day, we’re winning ballgames. Edwin is phenomenal, and he has a very bright future."
Cishek is doing his part in his new role. His hip is holding up, and he has a 1.74 ERA in 12 outings since returning from the disabled list. He is holding opponents to a .211 on-base percentage and has six holds as a bridge to Diaz.
"It’s great to have my legs back," Cishek said. "For me, it’s just being able to pump balls in the strike zone at the knees. That’s been my recipe my whole career. I feel like I can trust my stuff again."
As for the change in roles: No complaints.
"If I’m setting (Diaz) up — hopefully, next year, too — I’ll be happy doing that," he said. "As long as it helps us win."
Monday’s game marked the first appearance by outfielder Michael Saunders at Safeco Field as a visiting player. He spent six years with the Mariners before a Dec. 3, 2014 trade sent him to Toronto for left-handed pitcher J.A. Happ.
Saunders, 29, was on the disabled list last season when the Blue Jays played at Safeco Field but went 3-for-10 with three homers against his former club during a three-game series in July at the Rogers Centre.
Since, then, though, Saunders has been in an extended slump — batting just .187 over his last 40 games. His overall average was down to .258 in 129 games, prior to Monday, although he had a career-high 23 homers and 54 RBIs.
Saunders’ .341 on-base percentage and .487 slugging percentage were also career highs. He will be eligible for free agency after the season.
Happ, 33, is also returning with the Blue Jays to Safeco Field — as a Cy Young Award candidate. He was traded July 31, 2015 to Pittsburgh for pitcher Adrian Sampson before rejoining Toronto in November as a free-agent signing.
After going 4-6 with a 4.64 ERA last year for the Mariners, Happ turned into one of the game’s top pitchers after departing the Northwest. He went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA last year at Pittsburgh and is 19-4 this season with a 3.27 ERA.
Happ had never won more than 12 games in any of his prior nine big-league seasons. He is scheduled to start Tuesday’s game.
Third baseman Kyle Seager hits the ball hard more often than anyone else on the Mariners, according to the latest video-review data compiled by Inside Edge (@InsideEdgeScout), which provides scouting data to clubs and the media.
Seager hits the ball hard in 20.7 percent of his at-bats, which ranked 16th among all MLB players. Boston designated hitter David Ortiz ranked first at 26.6 percent, followed by Arizona third baseman Jake Lamb (23.9) and Detroit DH Victor Martinez (22.5).
The Mariners had four other players in the top 40: outfielder Franklin Gutierrez (No. 21 at 20.3), second baseman Robinson Cano (No. 22 at 20.3), first baseman Adam Lind (No. 38 at 19.6) and DH Nelson Cruz (No. 40 at 19.5).
The Mariners will have a new Double-A affiliate in 2017 after recently notifying Jackson of plans to seek a new partner. The news comes less than one week after the Generals won the Southern League title.
While the Mariners have not yet announced a new affiliation, Jackson moved quickly Monday by reaching a four-year agreement with Arizona. The Generals have been a Mariners affiliate for the last 10 years.
The Mariners have not yet announced a new affiliation but are believed to prefer having their Double-A club based in the Texas League.
The Mariners closed out their minor-league schedule Sunday when Lo-A Clinton suffered a 9-8 loss at Great Lakes (Dodgers) in the Midwest League championship series. Great Lakes won the best-of-five series 3-1.
Despite the loss, the Mariners’ farm system put together an amazing record in Andy McKay’s first year as director of player development.
All seven affiliates reached postseason. Four reached the championship series in their league and two won championships. Double-A Jackson won the Southern League crown, and Peoria won the Arizona Rookie League title.
The seven clubs combined for a .590 winning percentage at 451-313. A year ago, the Mariners fielded eight teams and went a combined 392-443 for a .469 winning percentage.
It was 16 years ago Tuesday — Sept. 20, 2000 — that the Mariners completed a 6-0 road trip — their first ever perfect multi-city road trip — when Kazuhiro Sasaki closed out a 5-4 victory at Tampa Bay.
The Mariners swept three-game series at Baltimore and Tampa Bay. It extended the club’s overall winning streak to eight games. Sasaki’s save was his 34th of the season, which set a franchise record.
Sasaki finished the season with 37 saves and was chosen as the American League’s Rookie of the Year. He broke his own record a year later by getting 45 saves, which remained the club record until Fernando Rodney had 48 in 2014.
Houston pitcher Lance McCullers was picked in a fan vote as the AL West nominee for the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award, which is presented by the players association. DH Nelson Cruz was the Mariners’ nominee…Hi-A High Desert, a Texas affiliate, won the California League title Saturday by sweeping Visalia in the best-of-five finals. The Mavericks were managed by Howard Johnson, who served as the Mariners’ hitting coach for a year and a half before getting replaced June 20, 2015 by Edgar Martinez.
The Mariners and Blue Jays continue their three-game series at 7:10 p.m. Tuesday when right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (16-11 with a 3.87 ERA) faces Toronto left-hander and former teammate J.A. Happ (19-4, 3.27).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, which includes 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners