HOUSTON — Even in victory Thursday, the Mariners couldn’t contain their admiration for Houston second baseman Jose Altuve, who went 4-for-4 with a tape-measure homer and a booming double.
"He’s not really a guy you can pitch around," catcher Chris Iannetta said. "You put him on base, and it can be a triple with the way he runs. You just try to make the pitches and limit it to singles. You hope he hits it at somebody."
While the Astros, at 11-19 after winning Friday, have been a bust this season amid high expectations, Altuve is batting .319 and entered the weekend sharing the American League lead in homers with Robinson Cano and Josh Donaldson.
"I enjoy watching him," Cano admitted. "He’s a guy that anytime he swings, you know something good is going to happen. It’s always fun to watch guys, especially at second base, be so successful as he’s been the last three, four years. He’s great."
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Altuve turned 26 on Friday and entered the weekend also leading the league in doubles (14), slugging percentage (.687) and stolen bases (10). He led off the first inning Thursday by hitting a home run onto the train track above the left-field wall.
Remember: Altuve is 5 feet 6 and 156 pounds.
"It’s not a good feeling when you see him walking to the plate," manager Scott Servais said. "You don’t know where to go, where to attack him."
In addition to his homer, Altuve hit a ball Thursday over the head of center fielder Leonys Martin onto Tal’s Hill in the seventh inning against reliever Nick Vincent.
"I’ve never seen Altuve hit the ball that far," Martin said. "That’s a long way, and he crushed that ball."
Martin recovered in time to make a relay throw to shortstop Ketel Marte, who threw out the potential lead run at the plate. The Mariners then got a three-run double by Cano in the ninth inning for a 6-3 victory.
"For me," Altuve said, "he’s the best second baseman in the league and a top-five hitter in baseball. You always have to be aware when he’s hitting."
Cano leads the league with 30 RBIs and was the AL Silver Slugger winner at second base from 2010-13 and the All-Star starter from 2010-14. But…Altuve was the Silver Slugger recipient the last two seasons and started last year for the AL.
If this represents a changing of the guard, Cano seems fine with it.
"I don’t mind if he’s a second baseman," he said. "I’m not the kind of guy that wants to do it all at second base. We all have a chance. Honestly, I really enjoy seeing him play and also running the bases. He can fly."
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but Cano seems to raise his game against the Astros.
He had four RBIs in Thursday’s victory and has 14 this season in five games against Houston. He also has an 11-game hitting streak against the Astros that dates to last year.
Cano is batting .423 (19-for-46) in that 11-game span with 18 RBIs.
Steve Cishek recorded his third “soft” save when he protected the Mariners’ three-run lead in the ninth inning for a 6-3 victory over the Astros in the series opener. Any lead larger than three runs does not constitute a save opportunity.
It was Cishek’s third soft save of the season.
But his other six saves have each required him to protect a one-run lead. Those are the most one-run saves by any pitcher in the majors.
The Mariners have the 11th overall pick in the upcoming draft, which runs June 9-11, and the folks at Baseball America have updated their projected first-round selections.
They have the Mariners choosing outfielder Blake Rutherford, a 19-year-old from Chaminade College Prep in Canoga Park, Calif. The magazine ranks him as the draft’s 10th-best prospect.
“Rutherford has size, strength, athleticism and power potential for scouts to dream on,” Baseball America noted, “and would likely be the consensus top prep bat in the class if he had a more consistent spring or if he were a year younger.”
The draft is exceedingly difficult to predict, particularly after the first few choices, but it’s an interesting exercise.
General manager Jerry Dipoto said the Mariners will take the highest-rated player on their draft board with their first pick but are likely to concentrate in later rounds on college players in an effort to rebuild their farm system.
The Mariners also have the 50th and 84th overall picks (in the second and third rounds). They do not have a pick in either compensation round.
Starting with the 117th overall pick in the fourth round, they will choose every 30 picks (147, 177, 207, etc.) for the remainder of the 40 rounds.
The plan for catcher Mike Zunino to spend a remedial development year at Triple-A Tacoma continues to show promise. He was picked this week as the player of the month for April in the Pacific Coast League.
Zunino, 25, batted .397 in 20 games for the Rainiers with six doubles, seven homers and 22 RBIs. He had a .438 on-base percentage and a .767 slugging percentage.
Contrast that with his production in two-plus big-league seasons, when he batted .193 in 295 games with a .252 on-base percentage and a .353 slugging percentage.
Double-A Jackson right-hander Dylan Unsworth carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning Thursday before combining with two relievers on a two-hitter in a 5-0 victory over Jacksonville (Marlins).
Unsworth, 23, is 2-0 and lowered his ERA to 0.92 (three earned runs over 29 1/3 innings) through five starts for the Generals. He is a South African native who signed with Mariners as 16-year-old in 2009.
It was 17 years ago Saturday — May 7, 1999 — that two Japanese-born starting pitchers faced one another in a major league game when Seattle’s Mac Suzuki matched up against New York’s Hideki Irabu at Yankee Stadium.
The game was scoreless through four innings before the Yankees began hammering Suzuki on their way to a 10-1 victory.
Robinson Cano is just the second Mariner to reach 30 RBIs in the club’s first 28 games. Ken Griffey Jr. had 33 RBIs through the first 28 games in 1997…the Mariners entered Friday ranked second among AL teams in ERA (3.04), rotation ERA (3.37) and bullpen ERA (2.33). Chicago ranks first in all three categories.
The Mariners and Astros continue their four-game series at 4:10 p.m. Pacific time Saturday at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Seattle right-hander Nathan Karns (3-1, 3.81 ERA) will face Houston right-hander Dallas Keuchel (2-4, 5.11).
The two hooked up April 26 at Safeco Field, when Karns out-pitched Keuchel, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, in an 11-1 victory. Karns has won three decisions in a row.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710-AM.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners