The temptation is strong to go with the 20-days-in-a-row excuse, given how relatively listless the Mariners seemed Sunday in an 8-2 loss (box) to the empire-building Houston Astros. Monday is a rare off-day at home, and the Mariners seemed to be leaning into their first break in three weeks.
But we’re not going there. Instead, we’re going with the not-quite-ready-for-big-boy-ball explanation.
Granted, it’s hard to wrap the mind around calling the Astros big boys. But they are 52-25, the majors’ best record, and have a two-central-Canadian-provinces lead in the American League West. They lead the majors in homers, runs and slugging percentage, and have won 14 of their past 17 road games.
And they were 51-111 four years ago.
They have one more win this season, which has not reached halftime, than they did in all of 2013. That included winning two of three over the weekend at Safeco Field, making seven of nine this season over Seattle.
The Astros are a superior team, even when they deploy the youngest player in the American League as the starting pitcher Sunday, and he blows up. The ability to win different ways consistently is a mark of quality.
Francis Martes, 21, threw 63 pitches in the first two innings, walking four of the 12 batters he faced and giving up a bases-loaded double to 2B Robinson Cano. So Houston manager A.J. Hinch in the third inning turned over the game to the bullpen, which gave the Mariners one single the rest of the way until a couple of meaningless hits in the ninth.
“It’s big to get a series win against these guys on the road, the way they’ve been playing,” said Hinch. “The versatility of our pen has been talked about over and over again. It was in full effect today.”
His Seattle counterpart, Scott Servais, called the game “disappointing,” which certainly was true, but no more than the 5-2 loss Saturday when another starter, Lance McCullers Jr., went only five innings, only to have the bullpen silence the Mariners too.
The moment was upon the Mariners Sunday, witnessed by 33,010, for a statement about distinctive progress despite a list of injuries and disappointments longer than a Phoenix summer.
The Mariners entered Saturday with a season-best win streak of six, including 13-3 over the Astros Friday. But the statement forthcoming Sunday afternoon was that unless the city of Houston is struck by an asteroid, the Astros will finish well ahead of the Mariners. That will make them fourth team to win the AL West since the Mariners last accomplished the feat in 2001.
For those scoring at home, the Angels have won the division six times, the Rangers and Athletics four times each.
Now more than likely, the Astros. The 0h-for-15 Mariners offer a remarkable streak of futility, particularly when it’s considered the division had only four teams through the first decade of the century.
All of which is not to say the Mariners are a bad club. Not at all. The six-game win streak featured the return from injury of Felix Hernandez, the successful debut of highly regarded rookie starter Andrew Moore, the continued renaissance of C Mike Zunino and 47 runs in the streak.
But given the personnel tumult, injuries — 1B Danny Valencia (wrist) and OF Ben Gamel (swollen lymph nodes) sat out Sunday — and bad luck, the Mariners have a hard time sustaining quality.
Consider the consecutive results starting May 19:
The Mariners (39-39) lost seven of eight, won nine of 11, lost six of eight, won six in a row, and now have lost two in a row.
They are close, but not close enough to be a genuine threat.
Sunday was another example of close calls lost. Starter Ariel Miranda retired the final 12 batters and reached into the eighth inning. But in his one bad inning, the fourth, he gave up four runs, three on mammoth home runs to George Springer and Yuni Gurriel.
In the second inning, Cano’s two-out, two-run double should have been a three-run double, but RF Mitch Haniger, running from first, was called out at the plate after two good throws — except the replay appeared to show his hand reaching the plate ahead of the tag.
Yet the New York review office called him out — except crew chief Angel Hernandez made the safe signal, erroneously starting a Mariners and crowd celebration. According to Servais, Hernandez admitted he “screwed that one up.”
Servais accepted the error, but remained baffled: “I’ve heard of eyes going bad, but ears?”
The lost run ended up not mattering after a four-run meltdown by the Seattle bullpen in the ninth. But the Mariners still seem shy in the Department of Good Fortune.
The Astros, meanwhile, have had pitcher-injury woes too — McCullers’s first game in weeks was Friday, All-Star pitcher Dallas Keuchel (neck) is out until late July, and so is Collin McHugh (elbow).
But the Astros have flourished. The Mariners are .500.
It’s hardly the end of the baseball world that the Mariners won’t win the division this season. But not only are the Astros good, they are relatively young enough to sustain their hegemony for a few more years.
At the moment, it’s hard to see where the Mariners get to re-join the club they owned back when the century was young.