The Mariners’ slow walk toward contention took another step with a 6-3 win over the AL West-leading Houston Astros Saturday night (box score). Those 7½ games separating the Mariners and Astros don’t appear nearly as daunting now that Seattle has two wins under its belt. Could we be watching the turning point in the Mariners’ season?
Nelson Cruz was the best power hitter in baseball — until he turned into Julio Cruz for 3½ weeks. That 22-game string of 83 homerless plate appearances came to an end when he tagged a 1-0 pitch over the leftfield fence for a 3-2 lead in the third inning. Cruz’s first 18 homers came in a bunch. His 19th required a little more patience.
Taijuan Walker gave up two home runs but very little else. His 11 strikeouts were a career high, and the 22-year-old phenom continued his recent streak of solid starts. He was charged with three earned runs after a runner he left on first base in the seventh came around to score – thanks, Vidal Nuno – but allowed only five hits over 6.1 innings. The bullpen had another rough outing, but don’t blame Fernando Rodney. He closed out the seventh inning after coming on with one out and two runners on base in a two-run game. Carson Smith earned his fifth save the hard way: Coming on in the eighth to pitch 1.1 innings.
Gar’s back, and it’s just like old times. The addition of new hitting coach Edgar Martinez probably had very little to do with Seattle’s bats coming alive, but the coincidence did not go unnoticed. Houston starter Dallas Keuchel, a Mariners killer over two years, got touched up for three home runs and was so off with his command that he walked in two runs in the second. The damage could have been worse – Seattle left the bases loaded in the second inning, and all three homers were solo shots – but it was one of the Mariners’ more impressive offensive performances in recent weeks. Seeing Cruz end his 22-game homerless streak brought a sigh of relief to the Mariners and their fans. It’s the first time since April 19-20 that the Mariners have scored 5+ runs on back-to-back nights.
“I think we all are really appreciative of what Howard Johnson has done. Great guy, great coach and a great person. At the end, it just wasn’t happening.” – GM Jack Zduriencik, on the decision to re-assign hitting coach Howard Johnson and give Martinez the job
“In my mind, this was a big win for us. We needed to have it” — Manager Lloyd McClendon on bringing in Smith in the eighth
Martinez was hired despite very little experience as a coach on any level. “Now is the right time,” said the 52-year-old Martinez, who retired after the 2004 season and hasn’t had a full-time position in baseball since then. “I really missed the game all those years” . . . Houston 2B Jose Altuve is still sidelined by a sore right hamstring . . . A fan was removed from his seat in the sixth inning, after he was charged with fan interference on a fly ball in foul territory. The fan reached out for the ball, then third-base umpire Mike DiMuro immediately ruled an out even though Miller was unable to catch the ball. Houston manager A.J. Hinch was ejected for arguing the call.
The Astros will send another young starter to the mound as RHP Vincent Velasquez (0-0, 4.66 ERA) is scheduled to make his third career start in the series finale. Seattle will counter with LHP J.A. Happ (3-3, 3.79 ERA). The Mariners have scored just two runs over his past three starts, and Happ has not earned a win since May 9.