SEATTLE — It took Hisashi Iwakuma’s best outing of the season, and a Houdini-like escape by Steve Cishek, but the Mariners finally found a way to beat Houston by holding on Saturday for a 1-0 victory at Safeco Field.
Robinson Cano’s RBI single in the sixth inning provided the game’s only run. That was fitting; the Mariners gave away 20,000 Cano bobblehead dolls to the crowd of 41,386.
Cano’s single followed a leadoff triple by Leonys Martin, who was the only Mariner whose approach worked against Houston starter Lance McCullers and his late-breaking curve.
But this game belonged to Iwakuma — or it did once Cishek stranded the tying run at third base with one out in the ninth inning by striking out the final two hitters.
Iwakuma(10-6) permitted just two hits in seven shutout innings while walking one and striking out eight against an opponent that had beaten him twice earlier in the season.
"It was payback time," he said. "They got me pretty good the last couple of starts. I knew we had to change our game plan, and I think (catcher Jesus) Sucre did a good job behind the plate.
"He called some pitches that I didn’t have in mind, and it worked out."
Manager Scott Servais pointed to an adjusted approach by Iwakuma — a willingness to throw fastballs up in the zone — that stemmed from the club’s analytics department.
"Looking at numbers," Servais said, "the analytical guys brought to my attention, and Mel’s attention, this week that he wasn’t expanding up and down as much.
"When he does that, his split is more effective. He’ll get some chases, too, because he’s deceptive up in the zone."
Mel is pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr., who pushed the idea with Iwakuma and Sucre.
Iwakuma said, "It helps to change eye level. I use my split a lot with two strikes. Just to keep them honest, I need to throw a four-seam (fastball) up in the zone and the curve down.
"Changing speeds back and forth helps a lot, too."
Servais added: "Great job by everybody. Getting the information. Working through the information and getting it to the player and putting it into play. Full team effort."
The victory enabled the Mariners to break a five-game skid against the Astros, climb back over .500 at 46-45 and even gain a game on first-place Texas in the American League West Division.
The Mariners, in third place, trail the Rangers by 7 1/2 games and sit three games behind second-place Houston.
The game’s only run came in the sixth inning after Martin led off with a triple into the right-center gap against McCullers, who fell to 4-4 despite allowing just one run in 5 1/3 innings.
"I knew it was in the gap," said Martin, who also had a double in the first inning. "When I got to second, I looked at it, and I knew I had a chance to get to third.
Cano followed with an RBI single through the left side of a shortened infield. That was it.
Iwakuma is 9-2 in his last 11 starts, which roughly mirrors Felix Hernandez’s time on the disabled list.
"That’s part of my job," Iwakuma said. "I’m the No. 2 guy. With the King out, we have to stay patient and step up until he comes back. When he comes back, I know it’s going to be a lot easier for us."
Hernandez is slotted to return Wednesday against the Chicago White Sox.
Although Iwakuma was only at 90 pitches, Servais opted to go to the bullpen for Edwin Diaz in the eighth inning. Diaz worked around a one-out single and steal, which got the game to Cishek.
The Astros immediately put the tying run in scoring position when Marwin Gonzalez led off with a double into the right-field corner.
"You’ve just got to forget about it," Cishek said, "and attack from there."
Jose Altuve surprised the Mariners by putting down a bunt, which Cishek fielded and threw to third for the out. Altuve reached second on the rundown, but the net effect was a free out.
"The best hitter on the team, and a guy in scoring position," Cishek said, "I figured he’d be swinging away. I was glad he bunted it back to me. I knew we had a chance at third."
Altuve then stole third, which prompted the Mariners to shorten their infield for a possible play at the plate. But Cishek responded by striking out Carlos Correa and Luis Valbuena for his 22nd save in 27 opportunities.
"Give Steve Cishek a lot of credit," Servais said. "He’s had some tough outings this year. With a 1-0 game, your margin for error is so small. He made great pitches."
PLAY OF THE GAME: Jose Altuve’s decision to bunt with no outs and the tying run at second base in the ninth inning turned into a free out when the Mariners threw out Marwin Gonzalez at third base.
Altuve is the American League’s leading hitter at .340.
"When you have Marwin leading off (with a double), and then into the middle of our order," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, "we felt pretty good about it."
PLUS: Hisashi Iwakuma had his second career game in which he pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer hits. The other was his no-hitter against Baltimore on Aug. 12, 2015…Leonys Martin went 2-for-3 with a walk and has reached base multiple times in four straight games…Edwin Diaz had two strikeouts in the eighth inning and now has 36 overall in 18 2/3 innings in his 18 appearances.
MINUS: Kyle Seager’s hitting streak ended at 14 games when he went 0-for-2 with a walk. He batted .453 (24-for-53) during the streak, which was the longest of the season by a Mariners player…Daniel Robertson started in left field and appeared to mis-read Carlos Correa’s drive in the seventh inning, which resulted in a double.
STAT PACK: Robinson Cano’s RBI single in the sixth inning was his 20th RBI of the season against the Astros. He joined five other Mariners to get 20 RBIs against a single opponent.
Ken Griffey Jr. did it twice — both times in 1996: 21 vs. Anaheim and 24 vs. Boston.
Four players did it once: Bret Boone (27 vs. Texas in 2001); Jay Buhner (23 vs. Minnesota in 1995); Edgar Martinez (20 vs. the New York Yankees in 1995) and Alex Rodriguez (20 vs. Baltimore in 1996).
QUOTABLE: Jesus Sucre was behind the plate last season when Hisashi Iwakuma pitched a no-hitter against Baltimore. Sucre’s two starts this year have been with Iwakuma on the mound.
Iwakuma won both of those games while yielding just one run and seven hits in 13 2/3 innings.
"We have the same philosophy," Iwakuma said. "He knows me very well. He knows my pitching style. He’s caught me for many games, including the no-hitter. He knows how I pitch and what I’m capable of doing.
"It works out well."
SHORT HOPS: This was the Mariners’ second 1-0 victory of the season. They also beat Kansas City on April 29 behind Felix Hernandez…the Astros (33) and Mariners (32) rank one-two in the majors in one-run games. Houston is 17-16, while the Mariners are 14-18…Houston right fielder George Springer was 0-for-4, which snapped his 10-game hitting streak at Safeco Field.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners