It must be nice to be the Houston Astros.
A talented, young core that will be together for years, the best starting rotation in the big leagues, a World Series celebration fresh in their minds, on their way to a second consecutive American League West crown …
Oh, and they can just plug in 100-mph rookie Josh James when they want to give 97-mph Gerrit Cole some extended rest.
Contrast that with the Seattle Mariners, who are on the cusp of a 17th consecutive season without a postseason appearance.
And the Mariners saw Dee Gordon and Denard Span allow a ball to drop between them on the warning track in left-center field in the eighth inning that led to two runs.
That’s how different the Mariners are right now from the Astros.
The Mariners combined that defensive blunder and a few others with no answers offensively against James, who tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings, while the Astros used a four-run third inning against Mike Leake to run away with a 7-0 victory on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.
It was James’ second career start, and you knew it was going to be a tough night for the Mariners when he struck out Ben Gamel on a 99.8-mph fastball to end the second inning.
“He’s got a great arm, he really does,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters afterward. “He’s rushing it up there 98-99 mph. Certainly a young guy with a lot of upside who throws hard and you haven’t seen him before – it takes an at-bat to get a good gauge on where he was at.
“But you got to give him credit, he threw strikes and mixed in enough changeups to keep us off-balanced.”
The Mariners went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base.
The Mariners (83-68) can still take the series on Wednesday and secure the season series with a win. Although, they’ll be going with a bullpen day – and they have rookie pitcher like James hiding anywhere.
Except their starter on Tuesday, right-hander Mike Leake, looked like he might cruise.
In a way, he did. Leake needed just 15 pitches for the first six outs of the game and through the sixth inning he had thrown just 68 pitches (51 strikes).
But one bad third inning haunted him.
Leake hit Brian McCann with a pitch and speedy Tony Kemp followed with what was ruled a double on a ground ball that got past Robinson Cano, the Gold Glove second baseman who who was playing first base. Cano could have corralled it.
Then Denard Span didn’t field a ball cleanly in left field. So McCann scored, Kemp reached third and Springer made it to second on the error before the Astros scored another run on Jose Altuve’s groundout.
“I thought Mike Leake for the most part threw the ball really well,” Servais said. “The one inning – that has been the story for his season. It’s that one inning that gets him and it’s usually tied around some defensive play that wasn’t finished off or completed that gets the ball rolling for the opposition.
“And that’s what happened tonight.”
Marwin Gonzalez followed two batters later with a two-run home run, his fourth homer against the Mariners this season.
The Astros had a 4-0 lead.
“It’s a tough lineup,” Leake said. “They’re going to be in the playoffs and possibly in the World Series. That’s the team to beat from last year.”
Meanwhile, Houston’s fire-throwing rookie starter rolled through the Mariners’ lineup. His first pitch of the game was a 97-mph fastball for a strike to Mitch Haniger.
James struck out Nelson Cruz twice because he’d follow a 98-mph fastball with a 90-mph changeup.
It must be nice to have pitchers like that in your farm system.
Combine that with his start in Tacoma against the Rainiers while pitching for Triple-A Fresno a month earlier, and James has pitched 10 scoreless innings against the Mariners organization this year.
Let’s get to it. Three takeaways:
There’s a few players worthy of consideration for 2018 Mariner killer.
The Angels’ Mike Trout, Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun have had heydays against Seattle. The Athletics’ Khris Davis has big career numbers against the Mariners. Joey Gallo has hit four home runs with a .368 batting average in that Rangers jersey against them.
And the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez loves playing the Mariners, too.
Gonzalez followed his RBI double from Monday with a two-run homer in this one, pushing the Astros’ lead to 4-0 in that third inning.
Gonzalez entering Tuesday was hitting .350 with three homers and 11 RBI against the Mariners this season, with his contract set to expire at the end of the year. He’s given nightmares to no team more than the Mariners this year.
So then Gonzalez hit a two-run home run as part of a four-run Astros third inning against Mike Leake. That was Gonzalez’s second hit of the game.
Still, it’s not quite Trout numbers against the Mariners. Trout hit .446 with a 1.499 OPS against the Mariners, hitting seven home runs, nine doubles, a triple, 12 RBI, three stolen bases and drew 16 walks in 82 plate appearances.
This wasn’t all Mike Leake’s fault. If the Mariners make some clean defensive plays behind him that third inning probably plays out much differently.
But Robinson Cano didn’t field a ground ball that resulted in a double for Tony Kemp and Denard Span followed with an error in left field before Marwin Gonzales hit a two-run home run with two outs in the third inning.
The Astros took a 4-0 lead and made it 5-0 when Yuli Gurriel doubled in the seventh and Brian McCann followed with an RBI single.
Houston had a 7-0 lead in the eighth inning after Denard Span and Dee Gordon were shrugging their shoulders at each other, wondering who had a fly ball that bounced between then in left-center field on the warning track.
It was not a day for Mariners defense.
Leake tossed 6 1/3 innings, allowed six hits, five runs with no walks and three strikeouts in his 30th start of the season. No player has started more games or tossed more innings (184 1/3) for the Mariners this season.
That’s seven consecutive seasons Leake has at least 30 starts (and eight with at least 29).
“I think that’s what’s given me my career,” Leake said. “If I hadn’t been able to do this, I don’t know where I would be.”
Robinson Cano hit two doubles as part of his 3-for-4 day and moved past hall of famers Cap Anson and Frank Robinson, as well as Al Oliver for 41st on MLB’s career doubles leaders.
Cano now is chasing Lou Gehrig. He’s next on the list with 534 doubles for 40th-most all-time. Cano has 530 doubles.
“When you start talking about those kinds of names in the history of baseball, that certainly says a lot,” Servais said. “That’s part of his game is the extra-base hits and getting the doubles. That was great to see. He’s swung the ball really well.”
Play of the game
The Astros had taken a 2-0 lead until Marwin Gonzalez’s two-run homer to left-center field with two outs in the third inning.
It was first ruled a double until replay showed that it careened above the yellow line for a homer, Gonzalez’s 16th home run of the season and fourth against the Mariners.
The Mariners were 53-31 entering July. Since then, they are 30-37.
Marwin Gonzalez went 2-for-3 and walked once. He’s batting .359 in 63 at-bats against the Mariners this season.
For Seattle, Robinson Cano went 3-for-4 with two doubles.
Rookie right-hander Josh James tossed 5 1/3 scoreless innings in his second big-league start for his first big-league win. He walked two, allowed four hits and struck out seven batters.
Mike Leake allowed five runs on six hits in 6 1/3 innings, though a few of those runs could have been easily considered unearned.
Mitch Haniger finally got some time off. He was pinch-hit for in the top of the ninth inning.
“I don’t think we’ve run anybody into the ground outside of our right fielder who has been out there every day,” Servais said. “And we’re going to give him a day off. Probably sometime in Texas (against the Rangers). He doesn’t know that yet.”