HOUSTON — Just when everything seemed to be falling into place for the Mariners, emerging ace Taijuan Walker exited Friday’s game against Houston after just two innings because of a neck spasm.
The injury is believed to be minor. Walker said afterward that he already felt "a little better" and that he expected to make his next scheduled start: "I should be fine, yeah."
But he wasn’t fine Friday night in a 6-3 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Walker gave up home runs in each of his two innings, and his velocity was notably diminished.
"My neck was tight," he said. "I couldn’t really turn to see the catcher. As a result, I couldn’t really finish my pitches. I was all arm. We thought it was better not to push it.
"I probably just slept wrong. I got stiff and couldn’t turn."
After two innings, manager Scott Servais had seen enough. Mayckol Guaipe replaced Walker (2-2) to start the third inning with the Mariners already trailing 3-0.
"(Walker) went out there and tried to get loose in the bullpen (before the game)," Servais said. "It wasn’t great. He got in the game, and (his neck) just wouldn’t loosen up.
"I just thought it was best for his well-being and long-term health, for us as well, to get him out of there. He tried to gut it out. He just didn’t have it."
As for the game, the Mariners fell into a five-run hole, but closed to 5-3 on Ketel Marte’s three-run triple in the seventh inning. That forced the Astros to use the top relievers, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson, to close it out.
Maybe that pays a dividend later in the series.
The Mariners had 53 hits in winning their four previous games but managed just two through the first six innings against Houston starter and ex-M Doug Fister.
"He threw strikes," Servais said. "We hit a lot of balls off the end of the bat. He kind of had us off-balance."
That changed in the seventh after Fister (3-3) hit Nelson Cruz with one out. Cruz went to third on Kyle Seager’s double before Fister loaded the bases with a four-pitch walk to Adam Lind.
In came Pat Neshek, who got a reprieve when shortstop Carlos Correa made a diving catch on Chris Iannetta’s liner, but Marte then cleared the bases with three-run triple into the right-field corner.
The Mariners left Marte at third when Leonys Martin popped out.
"We made it interesting," Servais said. "Big hit by Marte to get us close, but we didn’t do anything at all for the first five innings."
Houston then answered with one run later in the seventh against Mike Montgomery on Correa’s RBI single.
It seemed clear from the start that Walker wasn’t right.
He dodged one bullet in the first inning when Martin ran down George Springer’s 401-foot drive on the warning track in center field, but Correa followed with a 383-foot drive to right for a homer.
The Astros capitalized on a Marte error in the second inning when Marwin Gonzalez jumped a 3-0 pitch for a two-out homer. Marte made a throwing error on Evan Gattis’ leadoff grounder.
Guaipe held the margin at three runs until the fifth inning when singles by Jason Castro, Springer, Correa and a sacrifice fly by Colby Rasmus pushed Houston’s lead to 5-0.
PLAY OF THE GAME: The Mariners were threatening with one out and the bases loaded in the seventh inning when Houston shortstop Carlos Correa made a diving catch on a Chris Iannetta line drive.
PLUS: Ketel Marte had a single and a steal in the third inning and a three-run triple in the seventh…center fielder Leonys Martin ran down several deep fly balls for outs. Two of the more impressive sprints came against George Springer in the first inning and Colby Rasmus in the fifth…Kyle Seager had two hits in four at-bats. His average is up to .213 from .139 after a 12-for-29 surge over the last seven games.
MINUS: The top two hitters in the Mariners’ lineup, Nori Aoki and Seth Smith, were a combined 0-for-8…Adam Lind was 0-for-3 with a walk and is now flirting with the Mendoza Line at .210. He has five RBIs in 81 at-bats.
STAT PACK: Marwin Gonzalez’s two-run shot in the second inning marked the first homer of his career with a runner on base. All 25 of his previous homers came with the bases empty.
QUOTABLE: Manager Scott Servias on center fielder Leonys Martin running down several balls: "The game could have gotten a lot uglier. Great jumps and great routes in the outfield, and this outfield is so big. To see him go back on balls like that, you just drop your head and you look up and he’s catching it. It’s a nice luxury to have."
Martin explained: "I just run."
SHORT HOPS: Houston third baseman Luis Valbuena did a bat flip after drawing a walk in the fourth inning against Mayckol Guaipe. It was Valbuena’s 12th walk of the year. Celebrating a dozen.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners