The defining moment Friday in a 13-3 romp over first-place Houston was an essentially meaningless play that nonetheless embodied what the Mariners aspire to be.
It came in the seventh inning with the Mariners already leading 9-3. Runners were at second and third when Astros reliever James Hoyt bounced a pitch past catcher Brian McCann that McCann initially had trouble locating,
Danny Valencia scored easily while Jarrod Dyson eased into third, noticed that Hoyt was frantically chasing after the ball that McCann had yet to find. Dyson turned cheetah, raced home and executed a head-first slide that beat McCann’s tag.
"I just got caught up in the moment," Dyson said. "I wasn’t even thinking about the score. I felt (Hoyt) took his time to get to the ball. He wasn’t expecting me to go. I really wasn’t expecting me to go. It was a last-minute thing.
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"I just took my chances."
The Astros are a club rebuilt from the ground up over the last several years into a youthful collection that currently owns baseball’s best record.
They have a 28-18 edge over the Mariners since the start of the 2015 season, when they began seeing results from their makeover, largely because of their edge in athleticism and an ability to play a style that makes opponents uncomfortable.
"Everybody knows what kind of team the Astros have," manager Scott Servais said, "and what kind of year they’re putting together."
The Mariners’ roster overhaul over the last 21 months under general manager Jerry Dipoto stems from a desire to build a similar club. The current roster sports considerably more athleticism than in previous years.
Dyson’s ability to score from second on a wild pitch embodied the message the Mariners want to send to the Astros and every other club: You might beat us, but you’re longer going to do so simply by overmatching us in sheer athleticism.
On this night, anyway.
Three takeaways from Friday’s victory:
***Return of the King: Hernandez made his first start since shoulder bursitis forced his exit after just two innings on April 25 in Detroit. He wasn’t dominant in the classic Felix style, but he threw strikes and avoided big innings.
"I’m not looking for shutouts every time out," Servais said. "Just keep us in the ballgame. Get deep. Give us six innings. Then we’re in pretty good shape. I trust our offense. We’re going to be able to score runs."
Hernandez is looking for more, of course. Either way, this was a good first step.
"I was going crazy when I was on the DL," he said, "but I knew I was going to come back, and I knew it was going to be good. I feel good. And in-between innings, I felt good. It’s a great thing."
***Running the gauntlet: Robinson Cano went hitless in five at-bats one day after hitting two home runs and driving in six runs. American League RBI leader Nelson Cruz had a single in four at-bats but didn’t drive in any runs.
No matter. The Mariners continue to show a potent lineup from top to bottom. On Friday, the bottom three hitters (Danny Valencia, Dyson and Mike Zunino) were a combined 8-for-14 with four extra-base hits and six RBIs.
***Concerns for Segura: This bears watching. Jean Segura downshifted multiple gears in running the bases on a two-out double in the seventh inning when the ball ticked off the glove of a diving George Springer in center field.
A healthy Segura makes third easily, Dyson likely circles the bases. But Segura is still nursing some soreness in his high right ankle sprain. Taylor Motter immediately replaced Segura on the bases and finished the game at shortstop.
There’s a good chance that, as Servais suggested, Segura was simply exercising caution. The Mariners led 11-3 at the time. But Segura is also just three days into his return from the disabled list.
"Segura is OK," Servais said. "He’s not at 100 percent. When it’s time to run hard and score from second on a base-hit, I feel pretty confident that he can do that. But we had a big lead in the game, and I wanted to get him out of there."
It still bears watching.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners