HOUSTON – They weren’t strikes. They weren’t even particularly good pitches for a hitter to swing at in search of success.
And yet they all resulted in hits that hurt the Mariners, helping the Astros ignite a four-run seventh inning that extinguished any Seattle hopes of a sweep of the two-game series as Houston posted a 7-5 victory on Wednesday.
Reliever Juan Nicasio was on the receiving end of the bad luck that the Mariners have been able to avoid in recent weeks.
Brought in to protect a 4-3 lead in the seventh, Nicasio gave up a leadoff single to Tony Kemp, and it only got worse.
A slider low and away from the plate to George Springer on a 1-2 count resulted in a double, blooped off the end of the bat into right field. With runners on the corners, Nicasio got up 1-2 on Alex Bregman and again fired a slider outside the strike zone. Bregman lunged at the pitch, poking a soft ground ball up the middle that got by Nicasio and went for an infield single that tied the game.
“I know those guys are going to be swinging, and I tried to throw my sliders for balls outside of the plate,” he said. “And they made contact.”
Jose Altuve ended Nicasio’s night, jumping on a first-pitch fastball that was well below the strike zone and dumping it into left field for the go-ahead, run-scoring single.
“I try to make a good pitch, and after that you can’t control what happens if the hitter hits the ball,” Nicasio said. “I made a good pitch and sometimes it happens. Today, I had bad luck.”
Catcher Mike Zunino wasn’t expecting hits on any of the three pitches.
“He made good pitches with his off-speed stuff,” he said. “It’s just crazy sometimes how the ball goes, (Springer) caps it and finds a hole, (Bregman) reaches out and finds a hole up the middle and then Altuve – all good sliders down.”
Nicasio entered the game having retired 26 of the past 29 batters he faced, with 16 strikeouts.
On this night, he retired no one and was replaced by Dan Altavilla, who allowed two more runs to score.
The Astros aren’t the hellacious hackers of years past. Players like Springer and Bregman have reduced their propensity to strike out, which was a reason for their success last season.
“They’re tough, and they’re tough to strike out,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “They put the bat on the ball, and they got balls to fall in tonight.”
The defeat snapped the Mariners’ five-game winning streak. They fell to 38-23 and are 2-4 against the defending World Series champs. But this defeat seemed different from so many at Minute Maid Park in years past.
As they did earlier in the game and so often this season, the Mariners threatened another comeback. Kyle Seager trimmed the deficit to 7-5 in the eighth with a solo homer to right off Joe Smith. In the ninth, Nelson Cruz, who homered and had a run-scoring single earlier in the game, stepped to the plate with a pair of runners on base, representing the go-ahead run. But he struck out against Hector Rondon, ending the game.
“Our guys competed their tail off all night,” Servais said. “We played hard. We’ve been playing really hard, and it just didn’t go our way tonight.”
The somewhat surprising run of quality starts from Wade LeBlanc ended against the Astros. It wasn’t a bashing or a beating, but it might have been, had he tried to navigate through the order one more time.
Instead, LeBlanc was pulled from the game after a rough fourth inning, when he turned a 1-0 lead into a 3-1 deficit. He left a 3-2 fastball to Evan Gattis down the middle of the plate, which was a costly mistake. It resulted in a two-run homer off the glass windows above the tracks for the retractable roof.
“No movement, no life,” LeBlanc said of the pitch. “Just a crippled fastball. He’s gotten me before on similar pitches that I didn’t execute. And when a guy like me doesn’t execute, it’s going to happen.”
LeBlanc later allowed a run-scoring double to Springer that made it 3-1.
“I did whatever I could to keep the team in the game tonight,” he said. “I was not very good at all. There’s going to be nights like this. I haven’t had one like this as a starter this season. You run into them every now and then. Command wasn’t crisp and finish wasn’t crisp – just inconsistent overall. I was lucky to get out of there with three runs.”
Down two runs and with a rested bullpen, there was no reason to push LeBlanc further in the game. Servais went to his bullpen in hopes of keeping the deficit workable and maybe scratch out the necessary runs against Lance McCullers or the Astros bullpen.
They did both.
After belting a homer in the fourth off McCullers for Seattle’s first run, Cruz drove in the second run with a single through the left side of the infield to cut the lead to 3-2 in the sixth.
Denard Span tied the game to start the seventh, slamming the first pitch he saw from McCullers over the wall in right field for a solo homer that tied the game at 3-3.
The Mariners took a brief lead later in the inning when Jean Segura laced a run-scoring single off the glove of reliever Chris Devenski into center field, scoring Guillermo Heredia.
“You get down 3-1 and you’re looking around in years past, it would have been a different feeling in the dugout,” Seager said. “But there wasn’t any panic with this team. We lost tonight, but we still put up a fight, and those will work out more often than not for us.”
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review’s sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.