HOUSTON — The leaks in the Mariners’ rotation keep growing. Sunday’s questions centered on Hisashi Iwakuma after another disappointing effort in a 8-3 loss to the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
When Iwakuma failed it through a disastrous fifth inning — he blew a two-run lead before the bullpen took over — it marked the fifth time in his last six starts that he exited prior to the end of the sixth inning.
“I’m physically healthy,” Iwakuma insisted. “There’s no issue with that. This late in the season, we’re all tired. We feel fatigue at times, and we’re trying to overcome that.”
The Mariners never recovered after Iwakuma surrendered the lead.
Houston starter Collin McHugh (11-9) steadied after giving up Michael Saunders’ two-run homer in the top of the fifth, and the Astros’ bullpen delivered three scoreless innings.
“The only thing you can say is that we haven’t done our jobs,” second baseman Robinson Cano said. “The last couple of games, we’d have men in scoring position and we haven't done our job.”
The loss dropped the Mariners to 83-72 and left them 1 1/2 games behind Kansas City (84-70) for the American League’s second Wild Card spot. They are two games behind Oakland (85-70) for the top spot.
With seven games to play.
“It’s easier said than done to say, `Just go up, relax and play,’” center fielder Austin Jackson said. “That’s what you try to do, but…you want to get it done. When you don’t, it’s frustrating.”
The Astros blew the game open when Jake Marisnick rocked a three-run homer to deep left field with two outs in the seventh inning against Yoervis Medina, who has allowed six runs and 14 hits in his last six innings.
“Everybody goes through ruts during the course of the season,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “This is not the right time to do it. He hasn’t been good. Command hasn’t been good.”
That also applies Iwakuma, who was 12-6 with a 2.51 ERA through 21 starts after working eight shutout innings on Aug. 19 in a 5-2 victory at Philadelphia.
In six starts since then, he has given up 26 earned runs and 36 hits in 25 2/3 innings. Iwakuma is now 14-9 with a 3.54 ERA and has lost his last three starts.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned,” McClendon said. “He had six days (since his last start). I thought he’d be a lot sharper than he was today. We’ve got to figure it out.”
Iwakuma’s early exit capped a week in which the Mariners saw rookie lefty Roenis Elias depart in the fourth inning at Anaheim because of a elbow injury. He’s likely out for the rest of the season.
On Saturday, veteran Chris Young gave up seven runs in three-plus innings in a 10-1 loss that puts his spot in jeopardy. But alternatives are slim — Erasmo Ramirez or a collection of relievers.
McClendon dismissed the suggestion that Iwakuma is wearing down.
“I don’t know why it would be fatigue,” he said. “He was off for two months. We rested him every opportunity we had a chance to do that. I’m not sure what’s going on, but we’ve got to get it straightened out quickly.”
In contrast, McHugh entered on a roll: 6-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his last nine starts. He gave up three runs and four hits in six innings before handing a 4-3 lead to reliever Kevin Chapman.
It stayed 4-3 until Marisnick’s knockout punch.
The Mariners appeared well-positioned after taking a 3-1 lead in the fifth inning. Logan Morrison worked back from an 0-2 count for a one-out walk — the first walk issue by McHugh since Aug. 23.
McHugh jumped ahead 1-2 on Saunders before the count went full. Saunders then crushed a slider for no-doubt homer to right, and the Mariners led 3-1.
“I got some swings today,” Saunders said, “but you know it's meaningless. We're at a point in the season where we have one goal in mind and that's to win ballgames. Unless we do, nothing else matters.”
What the Mariners needed after Saunders’ homer was shutdown inning from Iwakuma. Instead, he opened the Houston fifth by walking Jonathan Villar, who went to third on Robbie Grossman’s line-drive single.
Jose Altuve followed with an RBI double. An intentional walk to Chris Carter loaded the bases with no outs.
Iwakuma struck out Dexter Fowler, but Alex Presley followed with a two-run single. The Mariners summoned Carson Smith at that point, and he stranded two runners by striking out two hitters.
But the Astros led 4-3, and it was all downhill from there.