Upon helping himself, Mariners closer Steve Cishek couldn’t help himself. A second after the ninth-inning strike that retired the side with the tying run on third base Saturday, Cishek pounded his glove twice.
“I’m not much of a fist-pumping guy,” Cishek said after the Mariners held on a for a 1-0 win over the Houston Astros. “That was taking a little bit of aggression out on my glove.”
Three-up, three-down innings have been a rarity this season for the sidearm-throwing right-hander, but there’s a benefit to being familiar with trouble. He knows what to do next. Saturday found Cishek in a typical jam, protecting a one-run lead against the free-swinging Astros. When Marwin Gonzalez led off the ninth inning with a double down the left-field line, it was another gut-check moment for the league leader in them.
Due up were Jose Altuve, a .340 batter and owner of the most hits in the majors, followed by budding superstar Carlos Correa and then Luis Valbuena, whose 10 homers against the Mariners since 2015 suggest he’s got a vendetta against the team that once traded him.
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But then Altuve offered the beleaguered reliever a care package that deflated the rally. Instead of swinging away, he put down a bunt Cishek picked up in time to throw out Gonzalez at third base. Catcher Jesus Sucre directed the scene.
“It was already in my head to go third,” Cishek said. “But I heard Sucre scream ‘three!’ as well. As soon as he said that, I just pivoted and let it go.”
Altuve soon atoned for his poor bunt by stealing third, forcing the Mariners to move their infielders in for a play at the plate. During what amounted to a mental chess match against the Astros’ second-year shortstop, Cishek was determined not to throw a fastball. Correa took an awkward cut with two strikes and missed, leaving Houston’s last chance up to Valbuena, who worked the count full before taking a slider for strike three.
Cishek had earned his 22nd save and, more important, stopped the bleeding associated with a stretch during which gave up six homers in 18 2/3 innings.
“Give Steve Cishek a lot of credit,” said manager Scott Servais. “He’s had some tough outings this year, and in a 1-0 game, your margin for error is so small. But he made great pitches. His slider was very effective and he stayed with it.”
When the Mariners returned from the All-Star break, Servais talked with each of his players about the second half. His chat with Cishek dwelled on making some changes about pitch selection and location.
“I can’t talk about what we talked about, because that’s my pitching secret,” said Cishek. “But he asked me what I wanted to work on.”
Said Servais: “He’s aware he’s given up some homers late — that what happens when you are in that spot. You end up losing the game in many of the cases. Still, I trust him. I think any time your closer is down there, you have to let it ride out. There are going to be a few bumps in the road, and there have been this year. But he is going to compete and he’s going to make his pitches with the game on the line.”
Cishek’s display of animation was steeped in frustration. For closers, saves are not the most salient stat. The stat that trumps all is the blown save. Cishek’s five blown saves before the break have put his status as the Mariners’ ninth-inning go-to guy in jeopardy, which is why Saturday loomed so pivotal.
“It’s been an aggravating last few outings, giving up a couple of runs here and there,” he said. “And giving up a leadoff double kind of gets under your skin a little bit when you’re trying to have a clean inning.
“It obviously is not the way you want to start the inning, but you try not to hit the panic button, stay focused, and continue with your plan.”
The inning that began with a double for Cishek concluded with a double-shot fist pump, a celebration acknowledging that for a one day, at least, he had stopped the bleeding.
Said Astros manager A.J. Hinch: “He’s their closer for a reason.”