The return of one starter and the re-emergence of another carried the Mariners to an electric 4-1 win over the Astros in front of a paltry crowd of 15,617 at Safeco Field Monday night. The Mariners stayed a half-game ahead of Detroit for the second American League wild-card spot and closed to one game behind Oakland for the first berth.
Brad Miller, former starting shortstop turned utility infielder, has been resurgent. A pair of homers last week in wins over the Athletics and Rangers, and a four-hit game Saturday have the 24-year-old, who started eight games in August, back in the lineup on a regular basis. It paid off for Seattle (79-64) again Monday as the team won the seventh game in its past nine.
Miller delivered two clutch hits, first giving Felix Hernandez a 1-0 lead in the sixth, then breaking a 1-1 tie with a two-run triple off Tony Sipp in the eighth. After the game, Miller extended a large share of the credit to the man hitting in front of him, who had long at-bats against each reliever Miller hit — Michael Saunders.
“That’s huge,” Miller said. “Two great at-bats, and when a guy does that, I think that passes off to you. That pitcher has been working hard . . . To extend the inning the first time and put me in a good spot the second time was awesome.”
The crowd was the lowest for a Mariners home game since July 10, coincidentally the last game played by Saunders. Fresh off the disabled list he originally hit for an oblique strain, Saunders had a considerable impact.
In a scoreless game with Logan Morrison on first and two outs, Saunders battled reliever Jorge De Leon for a 10-pitch walk. The next pitch De Leon threw was hit back up the middle by Miller, scoring Morrison. The run snapped a string of 15 scoreless innings for the Mariners.
After the 1-0 lead, manager Lloyd McClendon relieved Hernandez after a laborious six innings (99 pitches) of work, turning to Brandon Maurer. With one out, Robbie Grossman drove a high fly deep to right field ,where a waiting Saunders timed his leap and gloved the ball with his arm extended over the wall. As he came down, his arm recoiled and the ball flung out of his glove and onto the field. After review, Grossman settled for a triple and the Astros’ tying run had been delayed, not denied.
In the following at-bat, Jose Altuve hit a sacrifice fly down the right-field line caught by Saunders, whose accurate throw was barely late in cutting down Grossman.
Saunders had an eventful first game back after missing 50 with two separate ailments. Before the game, he admitted to feeling nerves.
“I actually started getting a little bit nervous when I woke up this morning, it felt like Opening Day again,” Saunders said. “The most frustrating thing for me was feeling like I was letting the guys down for the last couple of months. So this was a big day for me. This was one I had to wait a long time for.
“That was my biggest struggle all day today, was just continuing to tell myself to relax. You’ve been here before, you’ve been put in this situation before. Bottom line is we came out with the ‘W’ . . . It’s great to be back.”
Despite the six-inning shutout, Hernandez had his 10th no-decision. The King was not as sharp as he’s been. He walked four and gave up five hits in six innings, but he pitched his way out of every jam.
Prior to Monday’s matchup, Seattle faced Brad Peacock twice. On each prior occasion it hung four runs on the veteran right-hander and knocked him out midway through the contests.
Peacock was more fortunate in this game. He allowed four hits but stranded seven, thanks to the work of a speedy Houston outfield which tracked down several hard-hit fly balls.
Seattle won for the eighth time in its last 10 with an improved Houston team. The new version entered Monday 28-27 since July 6.
Mariners OF Dustin Ackley (ankle) missed his second consecutive game and is day-to-day . . . McClendon was ejected by crew chief Jeff Nelson for arguing the awarding of triple to Grossman in the seventh inning, believing it should have been a ground-rule double after the home run call was invalidated. It was McClendon’s sixth ejection . . . Monday’s game was the 16th (of 73) with the roof closed this season at Safeco Field . . . Jackson extended his home hitting streak to nine games . . . Mike Zunino was hit by a pitch for an AL-leading 15th time.