So much significance – that’s the low-hanging fruit from this night in Houston.
The Seattle Mariners already entered the city leading the reigning World Series champions by a game in the American League West standings, then they get two games against the Astros in early June hoping to show the doubters of the world that they’re ready to kick that 16-year playoff drought to the curb.
The Mariners entered Tuesday with a plus-17 run differential and 15 games over .500. The Astros had a plus-122 run differential and were 13 games over .500. So the Mariners’ surely can’t keep this up, especially with them leading the majors in one-run wins (18). It’s not sustainable … right?
So then the Mariners bashed the Astros to the tune of a 7-1 victory behind three home runs and James Paxton’s 7 2/3 innings at Minute Maid Park, improving to 38-22.
No extra-innings luck. No one-run timeliness. This was their largest margin of victory since a 9-3 win over the Blue Jays on May 10, when the Mariners still had Robinson Cano as their No. 3 hitter.
Make that two games up in the AL West standings for the Mariners with one more game against the Astros on Wednesday before heading to Tampa Bay.
But, again, this is all low-hanging fruit.
If this were the Mariners’ three-game series in Houston in the middle of September, this is all a better narrative. But Mariners manager Scott Servais warned, himself, before Tuesday’s game of onlookers placing far too much significance on this series.
One fact remains – the Mariners are right where they want to be.
“Guys made a strong statement tonight,” Servais told reporters afterward. “And we’re swinging the bat good. Hopefully it continues.”
Servais backed off that a little in his next breath.
“We’re focused on the road trip,” he said. “We want to have a good road trip.
“We were prepared. We were ready to play tonight. That’s a really good sign. This team, if you’ve followed us closely the past month and a half – little bit different ball club than we’ve had in the past. Guys are excited. They’re having fun and they can’t wait for the game to start. And it’s different guys all the time … it’s a collective group and it’s a lot of fun.”
They jumped on Houston’s former Cy Young pitcher Dallas Keuchel in the first two innings, with Kyle Seager lifting an opposite-field home run into the Crawford boxes for a three-run shot – his 10th home run of the season.
“I think this is the only park that I can do that in,” Kyle Seager told 710-AM afterward.
Kyle Seager has 163 career home runs. He rarely hits them to the opposite field and the one hit tonight vs the Astros was his most opposite field of all them. pic.twitter.com/gGqmMyo3jh— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 6, 2018
And that was a good sign for Seager, who tinkered with his swing this offseason. That was the farthest left the left-handed hitter has hit a home run, with teams normally playing him to pull. Kyle Seager’s 55 home runs against left-handed pitchers since 2012 are more than any other player in the majors in that span.
That came after Mitch Haniger scored Dee Gordon from third base on a fielder’s choice, just getting to first base in time to beat a potential double-play ball.
Then a Mike Zunino bomb.
He was batting ninth in the lineup and crushed a 76-mph slider with a 110-mph exit velocity off of his bat. MLB’s Statcast measured it at 429 feet, but it seemed more like 829 feet.
That two-run home run gave the Mariners a 6-0 lead in the second inning.
Jean Segura added one more home run off of Keuchel in the fifth inning. That’s the most runs Mariners have ever scored off him in a game and he has only allowed that many runs in a start eight times since 2012.
Meanwhile, James Paxton rolled behind some big defensive plays.
Seager had Marwin Gonzales’ chopper bounce off his back-hand stab down the left-field line in the second inning when the Astros scored their lone run. But he started back-to-back inning-ending double plays in the fifth and sixth innings.
“Double plays are a pitcher’s best friend,” Servais said. “They say that for a reason. We’ve played really well defensively.”
Guillermo Heredia jumped into the wall in center field for one out and Dee Gordon stuck a scorching ground ball from Yuli Gurriel in the fourth. The Mariners have not committed an error defensively in their past 13 games.
Paxton’s biggest jam came in the second inning. Gonzales’ double gave the Astros runners at second and third with one out before Paxton struck out Max Stassi and Jake Marisnick to end the threat.
“It’s big,” Paxton said. “Every series against a team in your division is big. Especially these guys being atop the division with them right now – every game puts us ahead. So every win is big.”
The Mariners have now won five consecutive games and nine of their past 11. Since Robinson Cano fractured his finger and then getting an 80-game drug suspension, the Mariners are 16-3 – the best records in baseball in that span.
And the Mariners are 16 games over .500 for the first time since the 2007 season.
“We feel good,” Seager said. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence. There’s a lot of trust and a lot of belief. And we understand that our pitching has been awesome and they’re going to keep us in the game and we’re going to scratch and claw and do whatever we can.”
A few takeaways:
Defense does it
The underrated facet behind the Mariners’ run of one-run victories and extra-innings dramatics – their defense.
Kyle Seager stared a pair of inning-ending double plays in the fifth and sixth innings, even after the Astros scored a run when a ball glanced off of Seager’s glove on Marwin Gonzales’ double down the left-field line.
Guillermo Heredia later crashed into the wall in center field to catch a ball that might have scored another run had he not caught it, and Dee Gordon stabbed a screaming ground ball off Yuli Gurriel’s bat for a quick out.
The Mariners have not committed a defensive error in their past 13 games. That’s normally the key to one-run wins, but it worked just as well in their six-run win on Tuesday.
Play of the game
Kyle Seager didn’t hit it very far.
But in Houston’s Minute Maid Park it was just enough, landing in the Crawford boxes in the short left-field porch.
That’s the most opposite of opposite field home runs Seager has hit in his career and it was his 10th this season, joining Mitch Haniger (12) and Nelson Cruz (10) among the Mariners’ leaders in homers.
“We’re in Houston,” Servais said of Seager’s homer. “That’s what it said about the swing. The ball park is obviously conducive to left-handed hitters hitting it up in the air the other way. Big hit, though, no doubt.”
It was a three-run shot in the first inning that staked the Mariners to a 4-0 lead.
James Paxton did allow nine hits, but only two went for extra bases (Marwin Gonzalez RBI double and Gonzalez’s triple).
He struck out six batters and lowered his season ERA to 2.95. He walked just one batter.
He started the season with an 11.57 ERA, then it was at 5.12 by the end of April before his dominant May (which somehow landed the Astros’ Justin Verlander the American League pitcher of the month over Paxton, who threw a no-hitter, struck out a career-high 16 in another start, tossed a complete game in another and had 11 K’s in another).
Over his past seven starts, Paxton has a 1.60 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings. He’s now 5-1.
Mike Zunino had the flashiest at-bat, destroying a baseball to the tune of a 429-foot home run. That’s the longest home run anyone has hit off of Dallas Keuchel this season. And it was a two-run shot that gave the Mariners a 6-0 lead.
But Jean Segura had the most consistent day and continued to stake his claim at a spot on the American League All-Star team, a group that is loaded with talented AL shortstops.
Segura went 2-for-4 with his fifth home run of the season and upped his season batting average to .333, the highest on the team.
Scott Servais on this Mariners’ win:
“Nice way to start the road trip,” he said. “Guys came out and made a statement tonight. And we’re swinging the bat good. Hopefully it continues.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677