John McGrath

Astros provide the Mariners an early measuring stick

Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki warms up before a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki warms up before a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, April 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner) AP Photo

The Mariners got more than enough good pitching out of Felix Hernandez on Sunday to finish their three-game series against Oakland with a sweep.

But Athletics starter Sean Manaea was slightly better over seven innings, limiting Seattle’s hot-hitting lineup to a Kyle Seager single and a Taylor Motter solo homer.

“Our offense has been going so good, you didn’t expect to see that game out there today,” manager Scott Servais said after the 2-1 defeat. “That’s baseball. That’s the beauty of it.”

Having fattened up on the likes of the Royals and Athletics during the four-game winning streak Manaea halted, the schedule gets substantially tougher this week when the defending World Series champion Houston Astros visit Safeco Field for four games beginning Monday.

James Paxton will face fellow lefty Dallas Keuchel in the opener, and while there’s no such thing as an urgent series in the middle of April, the Mariners can’t afford to resemble the tail-wagging lap dogs they were against the Astros last year. They lost 14 of 19 to Houston — five of the defeats before April 12 — sapping their season of momentum barely after it started.

Absent Houston on the 2017 schedule, Seattle was 73-70. With Houston on the schedule, Seattle was 78-84.

The next four games will challenge the Mariners on the field and complicate the sleeping patterns of general manager Jerry Dipoto off of it as roster decisions await.

Left fielder Ben Gamel appears to have recovered from the oblique strain he sustained in spring training. The injury compelled Dipoto to acquire free agent Ichiro Suzuki, looming as the second Mariners player to coast into the Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.

That distinction now belongs to Ken Griffey Jr., whose triumphant 2009 return to the Mariners was upstaged by his 2010 departure, when the curtain drew on his career without a curtain call.

A similarly awkward ending could be in store for Ichiro. He has appeared in nine games and collected six hits of the scratch-single variety. He has struck out four times without walking. He has not attempted to steal a base.

Aside from the spectacular catch made two weeks ago, when the former Gold Glove right fielder stole a home run over the left field wall, Ichiro’s defense at age 44 has been as pedestrian as his offense.

Guillermo Heredia typically serves as a late-inning replacement in any game Ichiro starts. With a healthy Gamel en route to Seattle, Heredia either goes to the bench or, because he has yet to exhaust his supply of minor-league options, he goes to Tacoma.

Demoting a serviceable utility outfielder like Heredia, out of deference to the legacy of Ichiro, does not fulfill any definition of prudent. Ichiro’s reluctance to call it quits is understandable — he’s been playing baseball for four decades — but the Mariners have more pressing priorities than arranging a graceful last hurrah for somebody who has had every opportunity to evaluate his steep decline.

Dipoto, speaking on the radio the other day, suggested the Mariners might keep five outfielders on the roster, with Heredia and Ichiro backing up the starting trio of Mitch Haniger in right, Dee Gordon in center and Gamel in left.

Dipoto knows that five outfielders on a 25-man roster is one too many. He also knows that when the team was introduced on a red carpet during the Opening Night festivities, the record Safeco Field crowd cheered loudest for Ichiro.

I’ve got this old-fashioned belief that baseball-personnel departments and baseball-marketing departments should be separate entities. Winning sells tickets. A sensibly constructed rosters gives a team a better chance to win than a roster constructed in the spirit of nostalgia.

In any case, Gamel on Sunday was packing his bags for Seattle, and so were the Astros.

“They’ve got a good ball club, obviously,” said Servais. “They won the World Series last year. But that was last year.

“We’re a different club. We’ll see.”