Marco Gonzales made key mental adjustment in bounce-back start for Mariners
The Seattle Mariners have to face the Houston Astros 15 more times this season.
You can sigh now.
Fortunately for the Mariners, the next series is just two games and it’s not until June 5.
Because the Astros showed every bit of why many consider them the most talented team in baseball. This four-game series, with the Astros’ winning three and the Mariners sneaking away with one win, didn’t necessarily expose the Mariners as it did highlight Houston.
Charlie Morton, the winning pitcher in the Astros’ Game 7 win over the Dodgers in the World Series last year, flashed the latest in Houston’s line of dominant starting pitching, throwing seven shutout innings in a 9-2 win at Safeco Field.
“They’re the world champs,” Mariners shortstop Jean Segura said. “And they’re the world champs for a reason.”
The Mariners (9-8) even turned what was then a critical triple-play in the fourth inning – just the 12th triple play in franchise history and first since 2015 – thanks to Evan Gattis forgetting how many outs there were and drifting off of first base.
It shouldn’t have been, but that was merely a footnote to the Astros’ bludgeoning.
Maybe the other Texas team won’t be as daunting. The Mariners travel to Arlington, Texas, on Thursday for a three-game series against the Rangers.
Morton is supposed to be the Astros’ No. 5 starter, yet in 25 innings pitched (four starts) he’s allowed two runs (0.72 ERA).
The Astros have gone seven consecutive games barely using their bullpen, which is considered one of their few weaknesses. Houston’s starting pitchers have gone seven consecutive starts pitching at least six innings and allowing two earned runs or fewer.
And the Mariners didn’t even have to face Justin Verlander, who was last week’s American League player of the week.
“I mean, no doubt about it – that’s the best rotation in baseball,” Segura said. “Not going to lie. As a player, as a human, you realize how good they are. I don’t think there’s any staff in the big leagues that has what they have.”
In four games against Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr., Gerrit Cole and Morton, the Mariners’ offense scored four runs off them, combined.
And the Mariners’ offense had been rolling. They entered the series on Tuesday batting .260 as team with 16 home runs in 13 games, averaging 4.8 runs per game.
Against the Astros? They hit .171 (21-for-123) with two home runs and averaged 1.5 runs.
“We got shut down and you have to give Houston credit,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Their pitching is as advertised.
“But it’s a long season. These things come in cycles – hot and cold and everything in between. I still like our club, we just didn’t get much going offensively at all and it’s tough to stay in games that way. You have to score some runs.”
And the stat line might not be as impressive (the Astros’ offense, though strike-out prone, will do that). But the Mariners also got four of their best starts from their starters – James Paxton (in a 2-1 win on Tuesday), Ariel Miranda (in a 4-1 loss Wednesday), Mike Leake (in a 7-1 loss on Thursday) and Gonzales on Thursday.
Gonzales, the former Gonzaga University standout, needed a bounce-back start and then he started his afternoon with strike outs of George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa in the first inning. Gonzales fanned seven of the first 10 batters he faced and finished with eight strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings, having allowed no earned runs.
It was 0-0 until a few defensive miscues allowed the Astros to score four runs in the fifth inning. One was earned.
Very similar to Wednesday’s game, when the game was tied 1-1 into the seventh inning before the Astros exploded for six runs.
“Just all types of stuff didn’t go our way this series,” Mariners center fielder Dee Gordon said.
And Servais stressed afterward that the Mariners have to do a better job going forward of making their own luck, especially against teams as talented as Houston.
“We got a little unlucky,” Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager said. “Same with Leake (Wednesday). He threw the ball really well, a lot better than the stat line would say. Our pitchers really pitched with them this series, but we didn’t hold up our end on the offensive side.”
But Houston’s lineup is explosive enough to do that to teams. They can get hot in a hurry. Jose Altuve, the reigning American League MVP, had been uncharacteristically quiet (at least by his standards) the first three game of the series and then he went 3-for-4 on Thursday with a pair of doubles and four RBIs, including a bases-clearing shot over Mitch Haniger’s head in right field with the bases loaded.
The Mariners do have reinforcements on the way. Catcher Mike Zunino is expected to be activated off the disabled list for Friday’s 5:05 p.m. game at Texas with Felix Hernandez on the mound. Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez appears lined up to start Sunday’s game and first baseman Ryon Healy will begin a rehab assignment with Double-A Arkansas on Friday, to go with the Mariners having activated outfielder Ben Gamel on Wednesday.
But those aren’t the cure-alls.
“We’ve been playing very good ball,” Servais said. “We just got shut down for a couple of days. It’s a long season and that is a very good team over there. We know that. We’re going to play them a lot.
“I think we need to take the experience, what we learned, how they attacked us and how they pitched us and hopefully we’ll be better off for it the next time we see them. We’re going to play them a lot so it’s not the last time we’ll see the Astros nor the last time they will see us.”
Some other takeaways:
HEALTHY NELSON CRUZ?: Cruz certainly isn’t at 100 percent since his return from quad and ankle injuries that sent him to the disabled list after the first two games.
His jogs out of the batter’s box on ground balls is the giveaway.
But at what point do the injuries also affect his swing? Cruz had a soft base hit to left field on Wednesday, but in six games since he was activated off the disabled list, Cruz is 3-for-24 (though he did hit a home run in second game back against Oakland).
“I’m concerned,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said before Thursday’s game. “No doubt. I check with him every day. Maybe there’s a day where we have to give him a day down here, a day down there. I really will be day to day. I’m hoping it gets better.
“I’m not so concerned about the running. It’s just looking comfortable in the batter’s box, being able to handle some pitches using his lower half correctly so he can get his swing off.”
MARCO SOLID: Gonzales struck out seven of the first 10 batters he faced.
His eight Ks were the most he’s had since Gonzales was traded to the Mariners from the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of last season. The Gonzaga University graduate was one strikeout away from tying the career high he set of nine when he was pitching for the Cardinals against the Rockies in 2014.
So why take him out in the fifth inning?
Gonzales has previously struggled in his young career to get through a lineup a second time and after striking out Jake Marisnick for the second out of the inning with runners at the corners, Servais had to be considering that the Astros were then sending the top of their order up with George Springer next up.
And the night before Mike Leake had been dealing with some of his stuff before the wheels fells off in the seventh inning in the Mariners’ 7-1 loss.
So Dan Altavilla entered, walked Springer to load the bases and then Jose Altuve send shot opposite field over Mitch Haniger’s head for a three-RBI double and a 4-0 Astros lead.
Gonzales’ final line was 4 2/3 innings pitched, four hits and three runs (all unearned) with eight strikeouts in his first career start against the Astros.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Yeah, the Mariners had a triple play. You don’t see many of those. It was the 12th in their team history and the first since 2015 against the Blue Jays.
But as far as impact on the game, the most meaningful play wasJose Altuve’s bases-clearing double in the fifth inning.
It broke the game open, driving in three runs and giving the Astros a 4-0 cushion. He hit it the opposite way over right-fielder’s Mitch Haniger’s head with what looked like a fairly effortless swing.
And he reminded why he was the American League MVP a season ago.
Top pitcher:Charlie Morton’s fastball velocity ranged from 91-93 mph just a few years ago and yet on Thursday the 34-year-old was topping at over 98 mph.
He pitched seven innings, allowing three hits and no runs with no walks with eight strikeouts.
Top hitter: There was the Jose Altuve the Mariners have come to know. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles and four RBIs.
Jean Segura talked about how baffling it is to face a veteran like Morton who has thrown harder as he’s aged.
“It’s unbelievable,” Segura said. “He goes from throwing 91 four years ago and now he’s throwing 98. I don’t get it. I thought when you get older your velocity goes down. And they got Verlander and Morton who went backward – they’re older and throwing harder. Whatever they are doing, they are tough.”