“It’s early” or not (it is), this weekend series was huge, and we all knew it. First time facing the hated Astros at a time where they look mortal in the midst of a four-game winning streak - as ugly as it may have looked - while debuting their City Connect uniforms? The narrative wrote itself. Last night was undeniably deflating, what with TOOTBLANs, unfortunate pitching sequences, and offensive struggles stealing defeat from the jaws of victory, but tonight was a new game. Marco Gonzales may not evoke a ton of hope against a righty-heavy, power-loaded Astros lineup, but any time the grizzled veteran squares off against a guy making his big league debut (the already meme’d-to-death J.P. France), it should make for a compelling product - and it delivered right out of the gate.
Through the first three innings, the Marco that showed up was borderline unrecognizable to the one we’ve often braced ourselves for in recent years. Opening the game with an emphatic fastball that broke 90, Marco carved up the first time through Houston’s order, a leadoff walk to José Abreu in the second the only blemish. Even that imperfection, though, was immediately erased on a pretty 1-6-3 double play off the bat of Kyle Tucker.
The third inning was especially electric, with Gonzales breezing through the bottom of the order, collecting a pair of strikeouts and half a dozen swinging strikes in the process. Armed with a familiarly strong changeup and a curveball with some extra oomph and tilt - plus a fastball that reliably clipped the upper edge when needed - Marco made David Hensley and Jake Meyers both look silly, with each of their three strikes coming from whiffs.
As has been all too common in the first act of the season, however, the bats couldn’t come through early. Astros righty J.P. France was making his Major League debut tonight, featuring a profile with plenty of swing-and-miss but a propensity to get a little wild with it. That was fully on display tonight, with strikeouts of Julio Rodríguez and Cal Raleigh sandwiching a clean base hit from our France, a toe plunk to Jarred Kelenic, and a walk to Eugenio Suárez in the first inning. Once again, the M’s had a wild starter on the ropes, a simple base hit the only difference between a pair of runs and disappointment.
It didn’t work out this time around. Teoscar Hernández probably should have a had a four-pitch Jack Cust Special here, but instead got caught looking, and strike three was a little less defensible given it was well in the zone.
It proved costly, too, as Houston’s France settled down, Seattle’s France notching a second base hit in the third notwithstanding. The Astros also started catching on to Marco in the fourth, with Dubón reaching down to flip an 0-2 curveball into left to lead off the frame and back-to-back walks to Yordan Álvarez and José Abreu - only the former being understandable - loading the bases with one out. The clenching began, especially with last night’s dagger in Kyle Tucker due up.
Fortunately, things could have gone much worse, with Tucker smoking a sac fly that Teo had to move in on to secure the out. Sure, one run was in, and yeah, Jeremy Peña added to the lead with a single, but Marco got rookie catcher Yainer Díaz to harmlessly ground out, stopping the bleeding in an inning where the floodgates threatened to burst. Houston would tack on another in the bottom of the fifth thanks to a Meyers double, a Dubón infield hit that Kolten Wong made a sensational effort to keep from trickling into the outfield, and a ringing Yordan double that should have plated two if not for a stellar relay started by Jarred Kelenic, carried by J.P. Crawford, and completed by Tom Murphy to get Dubón at the plate to end the frame. Yeah, yeah, there was some replay drama, but the right call was ultimately made.
Alas, the M’s couldn’t counter at the plate, with Wong looking visible uncomfortable during an ugly strikeout in the fifth. It would turn out, as some deduced by his wincing and wrist-shaking, that he hurt himself on the infield hit in the top of the frame, and sure enough, José Caballero took the field in his stead when the sixth inning rolled around. Really unfortunate when he seemed to be turning the corner at the plate! Houston’s France would exit after five, but Phil Maton and Hector Neris would prove to be just as befuddling, with each working their way out of trouble in their respective innings.
Marco got through the sixth with no damage done to cap off a rather unexpected quality start - despite a two-out double-and-Kelenic-clank from Peña - and it was time for some Silver Lining to shine through. Juan Then took the mound for the seventh in his own big league debut, and it was a winding road for him to get here despite being barely 23. Traded away, traded back to your original org, stalling out a bit thanks to COVID and poor command, and still cracking the big leagues? This was a perfect balm for my frustration with the bats. Then worked an easy 1-2-3 inning with two instances of weak contact, impressing me with the time he took to throw out Hensley on a comebacker. He might have to wait for his first Major League strikeout, but this scene in the dugout made the whole game up to this point worth it for me.
Lefty Tayler Saucedo was on for the eighth, and I have to say, back-to-back appearances from him after not seeing game action for nearly two weeks was a surprise. What ended up being the bigger surprise was a dominant outing, with Saucedo setting down Álvarez and Abreu on strikes to keep the 3-0 score stable. Still, though, it was tough not to see it has a bit of a white flag. Former Mariner Rafael Montero - who has maddeningly found sustained success since being traded - was on for the bottom of the inning, and quickly dispatched Ty and Jarred. Eugenio worked his second free base of the game to push his season walk rate back above double-digits, and Cal poked a grounder under Montero’s glove en route to a true, vintage, genu-wine LAstros moment.
Dare I say that was a callback to CHAOS BALL? Teoscar Hernández kept the train rolling with an infield hit of his own, and J.P. was summoned to knock in at least one. Truth be told, with a walk already notched and falling behind 3-0, I was preparing for a run-scoring walk. Those are always neat!
Of course, it turned out that Seattle’s shortstop had something much better up his sleeve.
That ball being scalded hard enough to zip under Tucker’s glove was some delightful schadenfreude, but the battle wasn’t over yet. Taylor Trammell pinch-hit for Tom Murphy - with Scott Servais boldly sacrificing the DH in the process - and worked a walk to further his Three True Outcome Agenda off of new Astros reliver and notorious flamethrower Ryne Stanek. José Caballero climbed in, and despite a three-hit performance in his last game and his overall fearless demeanor for a guy coming into tonight with 31 big league plate appearances, this felt like a big ask. Frankly, tying the game in the eighth was more than enough, and as they say, walkoffs are more fun. From my standpoint, it would have been okay if he didn’t come through here, honest.
In Caballero’s shoes, obviously, that wouldn’t be okay. And he made damn sure that wasn’t gonna be in the cards.
José Caballero has long held a sneakily compelling profile since coming over from the Diamondbacks in the Mike Leake trade in 2019: despite injuries taking more than their fair share of his time the last few years, he’s long been a strong baserunner, brought a capable infield glove, and flashed some truly intriguing on-base skills through the Minors. He’d already endeared himself to a chunk of the fanbase, but this moment right here? José Caballero has arrived in Seattle. Julio, Ty, and Jarred all followed up with consecutive singles, and after the dust settled, the M’s had brought home seven runs - all with two outs. It should be no shock that all, then, throughout the frame, T-Mobile Park was the loudest it had been in the young season. Paul Sewald was a bit shaky closing out the ninth, with the Astros clawing back a pair of runs on a two-out Jake Meyers double, but the stress levels remained low. Insurance runs: what a concept!
The Sea Wall thankfully held, with Paul effortlessly turning away Dubón, and once again, the Mariners won a game they trailed with a late-inning rally from unexpected sources. It may not have helped turn around their one-run record, but let’s be real: the vibes of this series have taken a big upswing. No longer do we have to await Bryce Miller’s home debut with bated breath, hoping to dodge a sweep at the hands of a direct rival. Rather, we can go into the rubber match with a sense of renewed optimism, eager to steal a series win from the team to beat, with a sensational pitching prospect looking to build on a scintillating debut. I, for one, cannot wait for tomorrow.