A somber Justin Smoak stood in front of his locker, trying to find encouragement in his team’s performance after their latest loss Tuesday night. There wasn’t much to point to after the 5-2 defeat in the second of three against the last-place Houston Astros (7-14).
One night after the Mariners’ hitters struck out 14 times, the team returned with 14 more versus a Houston staff that featured obscure Collin McHugh making just the 10th start of his major league career. McHugh, 26, had a 8.94 ERA in 15 games over 47.1 major-league innings, but he had enough to send the Mariners to their eighth loss in a row and 11th in the past 13.
Smoak generated the only offense the Mariners could muster. His seventh-inning, two-run home run came off reliever Raul Valdez and was his first homer batting right-handed this season. Houston’s lead was cut to 4-2.
Instead of talking about his ninth and 10th two-out RBIs of the season, Smoak attempted to explain how the offense was not pressing.
“I don’t think so. It’s still early, we all know that,” Smoak said. “It’s time for all of us to make a little bit of an adjustment and go up there with the mind-set that we’re going to get the job done. Have the mentality and a little bit of cockiness, swag, that we had early on.”
McHugh looked sharp in his first major league win. In 6.2 innings, the right-hander allowed three hits and no walks while striking out 12.
Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon gave McHugh the majority of the credit in limiting the M’s offense.
“He was a little different than the scouting report that we got. He was 94 (mph). He threw a pretty good slider or cut fastball in, commanded the fastball . . . you’ve got to give him credit,” McClendon said. “I think it was a combination of that, and our guys probably trying to do a little too much right now.”
The Mariners hoped for an improved effort from starter Erasmo Ramirez after he struggled in his previous three outings, when opponents combined to hit .383 and plated 13 runs.
Houston had two-run home run in the first inning from Jason Castro and followed in the second with a solo homer by Chris Carter. But over the next four innings, the Astros garnered just one more hit. In fact, when Ramirez was relieved by Dominic Leone to start the seventh inning, he had set down nine in a row.
While it didn’t start out well for the diminutive right-hander, the Mariners had to be encouraged with the way he finished. McClendon, though, was more focused with the beginning.
“He did not make quality pitches when he needed to,” McClendon said. “I think he needs to pitch better than what he did.”
Are there any alternatives short of getting Hisashi Iwakuma back as soon as possible?
“That’s something that Jack and I will sit down and talk about. The fact is the club is struggling. You need to go out and throw strikes and put up zeroes and we didn’t do that early.”
The bullpen didn’t do it late, either.
After Ramirez exited, the Astros stretched their lead to 4-0 in the seventh inning when Matt Dominguez took Leone deep to center for his fourth home run of the season. They added fifth in the eighth on four hits off Danny Farquhar. That run was the 18th the Mariners have allowed in the eighth inning this season.
During the eight-game losing streak, the offense has been outscored 46-18. The top third of the Mariners’ order was 2-for-12 with nine strikeouts.
McClendon would not criticize the approach his hitters had Tuesday night.
“I think the guys are trying to be intelligent, trying to work the counts. I think it’s a combination, again, of trying to do a little bit too much. Some of the credit has to go to the guy who pitched against us.”
Add McHugh’s name to the list of excellent starters the M’s have faced this season.
Hisashi Iwakuma pitched a four-inning simulated game at Safeco Field Tuesday. Iwakuma was scheduled to make his first rehabilitation start in Tacoma Tuesday but was kept here to avoid a rainout. Iwakuma threw 60 pitches to John Buck. Among the hitters to face him were Willie Bloomquist and Nick Franklin.
“Today I thought he had better finish to the split, more bite to the breaking ball and the fastball had good finish at the end, a little oomph at the end,” McClendon said. “So I was really pleased with what I saw today.”
Iwakuma will head to Las Vegas to make his first rehab start with AAA Tacoma Sunday. He is scheduled to throw 75 pitches . . . Nick Franklin pinch hit for Michael Saunders in the seventh. After grounding out, Franklin took over Saunders’ position in right field for his first appearance in the outfield in the regular season.