HOUSTON – As the ball rocketed off the bat of Tony Kemp, streaking toward the gap in right-center field, the instant reaction from most of the Mariners was resignation. It was going to be a base hit of some sort, and with pinch runner Derek Fisher attempting to steal on the pitch, Seattle’s one-run lead would be erased in the eighth inning.
It’s happened the Mariners too many times in Minute Maid Park.
“I thought it was a double,” said Alex Colome, the man who delivered the pitch.
“We thought it was in the gap,” said closer Edwin Diaz, who stood watching on the bullpen mound past the outfield.
Heck, even center fielder Guillermo Heredia, the man tasked with trying to catch it, didn’t seem optimistic.
“No, I thought had no chance to get it,” he said through interpreter Nasusel Cabrera.
But thanks to an outstanding jump off the bat and his tremendous closing speed, Heredia surprised himself, his teammates, the Astros and nearly every one of the 38,888 spectators in attendance Saturday night. As his legs churned up the distance on the outfield grass, he realized there was a chance. He made a lunging dive forward, catching the ball just before hit it the turf. In an instant, he was back on his feet, firing to first base to double off Fisher.
A play nobody thought would be made turned into two outs and allowed the Mariners to hang on for an eventual 3-2 victory over the Astros.
“It wasn’t the best catch I’ve ever made, but it meant a lot because it saved the game,” he said.
No hyperbole there. If that catch isn’t made, the Astros tie the game and have the go-ahead run on second base with no outs and Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa coming to the plate. That’s not a scenario for Seattle success.
“What a catch,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Everybody knows G is an awesome defender and never takes pitches off, but that play, that was the game.”
Servais and the Mariners took plenty of criticism when they kept the light-hitting Heredia on the roster and optioned the better-hitting Ben Gamel to Class AAA Tacoma when they acquired Cameron Maybin from the Marlins at the trade deadline. Their reasoning was Heredia’s defense and the redundancy of having Denard Span and Gamel on the same roster. Heredia often is used as a late-game defensive replacement. Saturday, he got a rare start and contributed.
“It’s exactly why we kept him,” Servais said. “There’s no batting average to really attach to his defense. I don’t know if people truly understand the impact of it. G is the best defender we’ve got out there. It is big in these tight games to be able to put him out there for defense. Everybody’s got to chip in and that’s what he does.”
Heredia says he knows it’s his best way to contribute.
“I haven’t been hitting very well so I need to find a way to help the team win,” he said.
The inning wasn’t over with the double play. The third out didn’t come easily for Colome, who was working for a third consecutive day. He gave up a single to Bregman and walked Correa before getting Evan Gattis to fly out to end the inning. It was another scoreless inning for Colome, who has now worked the past 18 2/3 innings without allowing a run.
“We’ve run Alex really hard,” Servais said. “Knowing that, if we had a lead in the ballgame, we were still going to use him and evaluate where we were at tomorrow. But he’s ice cold out there. Nothing gets him too excited and he continues to execute.”
Diaz, also working his third consecutive day, notched his third save in three days, running his MLB-leading total to 45 on the season. It guaranteed a rare series victory in Houston and set up a possible four-game sweep Sunday.
The Mariners (68-50) came into this four-game series against Houston and have faced the Astros’ three All-Star starting pitchers in the first three games – Justin Verlander on Thursday, Gerrit Cole on Friday and Charlie Morton on Saturday – and handed defeats to each of them.
“It’s right where everyone thought we’d be, right?” Servais joked. “That’s baseball. It’s crazy. As rough as things were offensively for us, we switched things up a little bit and guys are responding. It’s great. We’ve got a lot of baseball left to play. It’s going to be fun as we get through August and into September. We’ve earned the right to be in this spot so we should enjoy it and embrace the opportunity.
The Astros grabbed an early 2-0 lead in the second inning off Seattle starter Wade LeBlanc. A one-out single by Yuli Gurriel and a ground-rule double from Josh Reddick set up Tyler White’s two-run single to right-center.
LeBlanc kept the damage to only two runs, retiring 11 of the next 12 batters before exiting after five complete innings. He allowed just three hits with two walks and five strikeouts.
The Mariners picked up all three of their runs off Morton in the fourth with two outs. Nelson Cruz dumped a single into center and then had to chug and rumble all the away around the bases, scoring on Kyle Seager’s double to deep right-center that cut the lead to 2-1. Chris Herrmann followed with a drive to almost the same place as Seager’s double, and the backup catcher was able to turn his shot into a run-scoring triple that tied the game.
The Mariners took the lead on Ryon Healy’s soft ground ball up the first-base line.
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