HOUSTON — Here was an amazing snapshot Friday of the Mariners’ postseason chase: Mike Zunino pulled the bat back on a bunt with runners at first and second in the fourth inning of a tie game against Houston.
Zunino then hit what might be the most eye-popping homer of the season by a Mariner — a moonshot drive to left field that nearly hit the train that sits high atop the wall at Minute Maid Park.
That blast started the Mariners on a seven-run inning that turned into an 10-5 victory over the Astros and moved them to within one-half game of a postseason slot with nine games remaining.
The Mariners also got two homers from Dustin Ackley, solo shots in the third and eighth innings, and Kyle Seager, a three-run drive that capped the seven-run fourth.
But Zunino provided the key swing.
Here’s how it went down:
First, yes, he was bunting. Two infield errors by the Astros had just provided the Mariners with a gift-wrapped opportunity by putting runners on first and second with no outs.
“We’re trying to add on runs, obviously,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “(The Astros) had been struggling to score runs. (Zunino) got into a fastball count, and we took (the bunt) off. He got a fastball.”
Zunino doesn’t have a sacrifice bunt this season, but he said he wasn’t surprised at being asked to bunt.
“Not at all,” he insisted. “It’s something that we’ve talked about. Hitting down in that spot, you’ve got to be able to situational hit, bunt and everything. I’ve told him I’m able to do that.”
But when the count went to 2-1, McClendon took the bunt off. Zunino was free to swing away against Houston starter Brad Peacock.
“I looked at the defense,” Zunino said, “and how they were playing. It look liked they still thinking I was bunting. I just looked for a fastball right down the middle, and I was able to get one.”
And he crushed it.
“It’s in there,” Seager said. “He’s got unbelievable pop. We see it every day in BP. He’s just starting to scratch the surface. That guy is special.”
Zunino’s blast ignited the Mariners.
Peacock (4-9) issued one-out walks to Austin Jackson and Ackley before Robinson Cano collected his 900th career RBI with a single to left.
After the Astros replaced Peacock with Jake Buchanan, Seager drove a three-run homer over the right-field wall and, that quickly, the Mariners had an 8-1 lead.
For all that, Friday had another turning-point moment, and it came just prior to that seven-run knockout: The Astros loaded the bases with no outs in the third inning against Taijuan Walker.
“He showed a little fortitude there,” McClendon said. “I was very proud of him. He never panicked. He continued to execute pitches, with purpose, and I thought he was pretty good.”
Walker (2-2) stranded all three runners by striking out Dexter Fowler and Jason Castro before ending the inning by retiring Matt Dominguez on a routine fly to center.
“I just stayed with the fastball,” Walker said. “I told myself, `You can’t let these guys score. You can’t let these guys score.’”
Walker pitched into the sixth inning before handing a six-run lead to the bullpen. He gave up two runs and eight hits while striking out seven and walking two.
“It was good,” Walker said. “It wasn’t great. Can definitely do better. After that seven-run inning, I was able to go out there and just attack the hitters.”
Neither Brandon Maurer nor Yoervis Medina were sharp in relief, but the lead was sufficient. Joe Beimel and Danny Farquhar combined on a scoreless ninth inning.
The victory boosted the Mariners to 83-70 and pulled them to within one-half game of Kansas City for the American League’s final Wild Card berth. They remained one game behind Oakland for the top Wild Card spot.
“It’s crunch time,” Seager said. “Every game is magnified and so important. You’ve got to suck it up and find a way.”