Tide turning in AL West? Mariners’ series win sends message to Astros
The Houston Astros have been the team to beat in the American League West for a long time.
Well, the Seattle Mariners just beat ’em.
The Mariners shook off their rocky season-opening road trip to take two of three from their division rivals this weekend, and those two wins featured just about everything this team is built to do.
Dominant starting pitching? Got that. A deep lineup that feeds off of baserunners to put together rallies? That, too. A lights out bullpen? Not even a question. May as well throw in some stellar defense and the occasional opposite-field blast from a right-handed slugger that cut through the chilly April Seattle air, as well.
This may be a series that the Mariners, now 5-5 on the season, look back at and realize is where the tide turned. The one where Seattle sent a message to the division winner in four of the last five seasons that the AL West title will no longer go through Houston.
The Mariners have won some series here and there against the Astros in recent years, but not many. And more importantly, they haven’t won a season series over Houston since 2018, and that was the only time they’ve done so since 2015. Simply put, the Astros have the aggressors more often than not when the teams have met over the past seven seasons, and the Mariners were just trying to keep up.
This weekend at T-Mobile Park was a different story.
That’s because while Seattle outplayed Houston (5-4) in its wins Friday and Sunday, Saturday looked like a rerun. Justin Verlander, making just his second start back from the Tommy John surgery that repaired the torn UCL he suffered on opening day 2020 against the Mariners, looked every bit back in Cy Young Award-winning form, striking out eight in eight innings of scoreless, three-hit baseball to lead the Astros to a 4-0 win.
Should that put a damper on the Mariners’ series win, though? I don’t think so. Keep it in the back of your mind, sure, but the fact that the Mariners otherwise smacked around Astros pitching should underline how Verlander, who Mariners analyst Ryan Rowland-Smith said is his pick to win the American League Cy Young this year on the postgame show the night before Saturday’s game, is back to his old tricks.
The other Houston pitchers that Seattle saw, though, the lineup generally had an answer for.
On Sunday, a 7-2 victory, the M’s chased starter Jose Urquidy with a five-run fourth inning (they tagged him for six runs total), then tacked on another run in the sixth against reliever Ronel Blanco. Seattle also did that without the presence of cleanup hitter Mitch Haniger, who was placed on the COVID-19 injured list Saturday, and with No. 3 hitter Jesse Winker scuffling.
Seattle’s bullpen, meanwhile, was nearly untouchable. Houston scratched a lone run across against the Mariners’ relievers over 8 2/3 innings in the series, collecting just six hits and three walks while striking out 11 times. Sunday’s win featured a particularly frustrating run for the Astros’ hitters as Seattle sent out Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider, Andrés Muñoz and Diego Castillo – all right-handers with tough sliders – in a row in relief of starter Matt Brash – also a right-hander with a tough slider.
And that brings us to the starting pitching, which deserves as much credit as anything for the tone-setting series. And that all started with Marco Gonzales.
The veteran left-hander hasn’t had much success in his career against Houston, and clearly that was on his mind during the home opener Friday night. He tossed seven innings, allowing four hits, no walks and a hit batter to give up just one run while striking out six to earn the win.
“Getting ahead in the count, throwing five different pitches for strikes and pitching with a little bit of a chip on my shoulder,” Gonzales said when asked what the key for him was after the game. “These guys smacked me around for a long time. So (it) felt good to stick it to them a little bit.”
Sounds a bit like a microcosm of the entire Mariners-Astros rivalry for the past eight years, doesn’t it?
The Astros aren’t exactly the same old Astros this year. All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa is gone, now a Minnesota Twin. The rotation isn’t what it once was, even with Verlander defying age. Young, unproven players are being asked to play major roles this season.
And, well, the Mariners aren’t the same old Mariners, either. They haven’t been for a while, but it was especially evident Sunday when Brash, in just his second start in the big leagues, perplexed Houston’s lineup for 5 1/3 hitless innings before José Altuve singled and Michael Brantley homered, bringing out Mariners manager Scott Servais to call for the bullpen.
The 23-year-old Brash, though, was once again electric even as he struggled with command. He walked six and also hit a batter, but the Astros couldn’t do much when they swung. As a result, Brash struck out five and got Houston to hit into four big double plays. All the while, the Seattle offense hummed right along, putting up more than enough runs to walk away with the win.
Kinda felt like the shoe was on the other foot.
Kinda felt like Houston was playing the old version of itself – the hungry team with exciting young players, breakout candidates and seasoned veterans in key places.
Kinda felt the tide turning.
I think the AL West has a fight on its hands this year.
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• Scott Servais: “If it all comes together,” Mariners will be “hard to beat”
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