At Houston’s Minute Maid Park, starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma finally made his 2014 debut Saturday and came away with a victory, but how he achieved it had everything to do with what unfolded in the seventh inning, and how Seattle nearly squandered a series of Astros gifts before prevailing, shakily, 9-8.
Iwakuma seemed headed for a hard-luck loss, the Mariners trailing 2-1 without having done much against Houston starter Dallas Keuchel, who barely broke a sweat in recording 16 ground-ball outs. But in the seventh, Keuchel inexplicably lost his command, leading to an eight-run outburst.
Keuchel walked Justin Smoak on four pitches, then Cole Gillespie on four. Keuchel induced two strikes on Brad Miller attempting to bunt, but walked him as well, loading the bases with no outs. Jose Cisnero relieved Keuchel but proved equally inept, walking Mike Zunino and forcing in a run to tie at 2.
From that point, the Mariners went on a rampage, getting a two-run double from Michael Saunders and RBI singles from Stefan Romero and Robinson Cano. Cano’s hit sent Cisnero to the showers. Kyle Seager deposited reliever Raul Valdes’s first pitch off the base of the wall in left, scoring Cano. Smoak, batting for the second time in the inning, whacked Valdes’s second pitch over the wall in left for a two-run homer.
“I was sitting on a fastball and I didn’t miss it,” said Smoak, who crushed Valdes’s pitch so far that it would have landed on the street outside the ballpark if the left-field windows hadn’t kept it indoors.
But Iwakuma couldn’t hold the 9-2 lead, giving up a home run to Chris Carter, which ignited a four-run outburst, which not only chased Iwakuma, but reliever Dominic Leone as well. After the Astros pulled within 9-6, they added two more in the eighth as Seattle reliever Yoervis Medina fell apart, but squeaked out the win as closer Fernando Rodney notched his seventh save by getting the final four outs.
Iwakuma, who missed all of spring training with a sprained finger tendon, made his 50th career start. He threw 31 strikes among his first 39 pitches, allowing only a leadoff single to Jose Altuve. But in the third, he ceded two runs on a triple by Jonathan Villar and Jose Altuve’s sacrifice fly.
In the sixth, Cano dumped a single into left, scoring Romero, who had tripled with one out. An inning later, the Mariners sent 11 to the plate for their the biggest inning of the year.
Iwakuma worked 6.2 innings, allowed four earned runs on six hits, struck out three and walked one. He threw 81 pitches.
The Mariners improved to 13-15 and 1-1 against the Astros in this series. Seattle also evened its record at 12-12 against Houston since the Astros joined the AL West in 2013.
Four Mariners had two-hit games — Saunders (2-for-5), Romero (2-for-5), Cano (2-for-5) and Smoak (2-for-3) — as Seattle went 5-for-7 with runners in scoring position. But Seattle’s bullpen had a rancid afternoon.
Leone, who replaced Iwakuma, allowed two earned runs without an out. Medina gave up a double to Matt Dominguez, a run-scoring triple to Carter, an RBI single to Alex Presley, hit a batter and walked Jonathan Villar. That lameness brought on Rodney, who recorded the final out of the eighth.
NOTES: Manager Lloyd McClendon was ejected for the first time this season when he protested, a little too vociferously, Houston manager Bo Porter’s attempt to stall for time while getting a reliever ready in the seventh inning. McClendon argued that the Astros had two mound visits . . . To clear room on the 25-man roster for Iwakuma, the Mariners dispatched LHP Lucas Luetge, 27, to AAA Tacoma. Luetge was in his second stint with the Mariners this season. He was recalled to Seattle April 25 from Tacoma and pitched in one game. He was also on the MLB roster April 9-14, appearing in two games . . . Iwakuma became the eighth pitcher to start a game for the Mariners this season, tied with Texas for the most in MLB.
NEXT: The Mariners close out the set Sunday at 11:10 a.m. Brandon Maurer (0-0, 6.74) will throw opposite RHP Collin McHugh (2-0, 5.59), who defeated Seattle 5-2 April 22 at Safeco Field. McHugh had 12 strikeouts and no walks while allowing three hits. The Mariners will begin a four-game set at Oakland Monday night.
Interesting strategy by McClendon as he alternated right and left handers in the lineup. The offense rewarded him for it but the bullpen had its problems. Overall I think Iwakuma’s return was a success.