If there’s a bright side to the Astros coming to town, it’s in the vigor with which the fans are still booing them. Though the Astros (hopefully) look to be in the twilight of their reign over the AL West, their visits have continued to be overwhelmingly bad experiences for the Mariners. The Mariners’ 1-18 record against the Astros in 2019 still leaves a sour taste, and it’s not as if their 8-15 record over the past two years is much better.
So, without much else on which to hang their hats, the boos help.
As guest analyst Angie Mentink quipped at one point during the game: “when you hear the boos, you know who’s up”. So when the Mariners’ PA announcer’s voice was drowned out by a cacophony of boos, you didn’t need to hear his words to know that he was announcing José Altuve.
Altuve grimaced slightly as he stepped to the plate. It’s hard to know how much the boos affect him. You’d think after glancing at his 128 wRC+ that he’s gotten past the struggles that plagued him last season. His home/away splits, however, seem to suggest something deeper: a 154 wRC+ at home is dragged down by his 102 wRC+ while hearing the boos away from home.
Perhaps in an effort to quell the crowd early, Altuve jumped on the first pitch, smashing a line drive to left field at 107 MPH. Unfortunately for the tiny cheater, the ball went straight to the newly promoted José Marmolejos for the first out of the game, causing the crowd to erupt into cheers and jeers.
Unfortunately, Altuve’s hard liner was an ominous portent of things to come for M’s starter Chris Flexen. Michael Brantley followed Altuvé with a 101 MPH hit of his own that found the grass for a single. Flexen walked Carlos Correa, then Yordan Álvarez obliterated yet another line drive at 109 MPH to score Brantley. Another walk and a sacrifice fly gave the Astros a 2-0 lead before an Aledmys Díaz grounder mercifully found J.P. Crawford’s glove to end the inning.
For the Mariner hitters, tonight felt partly like a game of missed opportunities. J.P. Crawford’s single to lead off the first inning was immediately erased by a Mitch Haniger double play. The Mariners started the second inning with two line drives from Ty France and Abraham Toro, each of which had 66% chances to be hits per Baseball Savant. Both were caught.
Fortunately, those lineouts were followed by this smash by José Marmolejos, which had no chance of being caught.
Flexen managed to settle down after his first inning mishaps with the help of some scatter luck. The few hard-hit balls that the Astros managed against him were conveniently spread out: he stranded six runners over the next 4.1 innings. With luck on their side, it looked like the Mariners might be able to steal the game.
It was in the sixth inning that the Mariners finally managed to put something together against Astros rookie starter Luis García. Kyle Seager worked a full-count walk before Ty France jumped on a cutter and lined it into the outfield, chasing García from the game. When fans saw the name of the reliever who would be replacing him flashing onto the screen, they likely began to salivate in Pavlovian fashion.
Brooks Raley is perhaps best remembered for being the pitcher who served up the pitch that Dylan Moore blasted into space for a go-ahead grand slam just before the trade deadline. With the Mariners desperately in need of some kind of offense, he was a welcome sight. Unfortunately, he immediately induced a double play grounder from Abraham Toro, seemingly killing any chance of a rally.
Or not. Scott Servais opted to pinch hit the right-handed Dylan Moore against the left-handed Raley. Moore, who hadn’t homered since the aforementioned grand slam, leaned in. A curveball missed inside for ball one. Raley cocked back before firing another curveball down and in. This one caught a little too much of the plate. Moore knew what to do with it.
It felt bizarre that all of the Mariners’ runs tonight came from the left field position, which has historically been their anathema over the years. Still, the Mariners offense has felt truly anemic over the past few weeks, and it felt as if their newfound one-run lead would have to be sufficient if they were going to win tonight.
Casey Sadler made it through the seventh inning unscathed, and Scott Servais opted to try to sneak in an inning of Joe Smith against the less formidable Astros hitters: Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker, and Aledmys Díaz. It... didn’t work.
Gurriel singled to left before taking second base on an error, and Tucker immediately followed that up with an RBI single. That would have been fine, but Tucker stole second base to put himself in scoring position, significantly decreasing Joe Smith’s (and the field’s) margin for error.
It was a margin they sorely needed to be bigger. Jake Meyers cracked a single past a diving J.P. Crawford. Tucker, at first worried that Crawford would reach the ball, stumbled before gathering a head of steam toward third base, his third base coach waving him home. Before Tucker was even close to the base, Dylan Moore came up with the ball in left field, took a step toward home, and...
This was always going to be a play that’s tough, but makeable. With the game tied in the eighth inning, it’s a play you have to at least attempt. If you aren’t comfortable attempting that throw from left field, you have no business playing in the outfield for a Major League Baseball team. It was, of course, a soft grounder, the type of hit on which you wouldn’t normally expect to have a play at the plate. But we do have to raise our standards at some point.
In any case, the Mariners now found themselves on the wrong end of the one-run score differential, and responded by striking out in order in the eighth inning. Down to their last three outs in the ninth, Luis Torrens briefly ignited hope with a walk, and Jarred Kelenic continued to kindle that hope as he worked a 3-1 count.
In what was one of the more painful at bats of the night, Kelenic watched a curveball toward the middle of the zone, fouled off a slider, and was caught dead looking at another curveball that caught the bottom of the zone for strike three. Cal Raleigh and J.P. Crawford were quickly retired, and the Mariners found themselves sucking their teeth at a missed opportunity to make up ground in the Wild Card race.
If one were to sift through the muddy silt of tonight’s game looking for saving graces, they could point to José Marmolejos’ continuation of his torrid performance in Tacoma. They could also look at the outstanding broadcast work of Angie Mentink, whose insight and wit made the game a deeply more enjoyable experience than usual.
In the end, though, the Mariners found themselves where they’ve been so many times before: looking for a bright side.