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Out of Right Field: M’s finally taste victory at Minute Maid Park

UPDATED: Sun., July 26, 2020

The Houston Astros’ Taylor Jones (Gonzaga) grounds into a double play as Mariners catcher Joe Hudson reaches for the pitch during the second inning Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Houston.  (Associated Press)
The Houston Astros’ Taylor Jones (Gonzaga) grounds into a double play as Mariners catcher Joe Hudson reaches for the pitch during the second inning Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Houston. (Associated Press)
By Vince Grippi For The Spokesman-Review

It’s over. The Mariners found a way to win at Minute Maid Park.

All it took was near-perfect pitching from their bullpen and a three-run eighth-inning rally. That and a three-strike out, 30-pitch save from offseason acquisition Taylor Williams, his first in 73 career appearances.

Add it up and the M’s picked up a 7-6 victory, their first of 2020. They also snapped a 12-game losing streak in Houston – dating back to Sept. 19, 2018 – and a 15-game overall losing streak to the Astros – with their lone win last season coming in Seattle on June 5.

The win came despite Houston doing what it does, putting together a big inning and knocking the Mariner starting pitcher out in the early innings. Sunday it was Yusei Kikuchi and the Astros’ four-spot came in the fourth, erasing what was a 4-1 M’s lead.

Houston’s one-run lead lasted until the eighth, which Tim Lopes led off with his third hit. After a Mallex Smith strike out and an Austin Nola pinch-hit walk, Shed Long tied the game with a single to right. A batter later, Kyle Lewis untied it, though not with a long ball, his specialty thus far this season.

Instead, the rookie centerfielder served a two-strike fastball from Chris Devenski into right field, Nola and Long scored and the M’s had their first late-inning lead of the season.

Williams, who the M’s grabbed after he was waived by Milwaukee, pitched the ninth and, though he gave up a run on two hits, the former Washington State pitcher – he spent his freshman year in Pullman – struck out George Springer, Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman to earn the save.

• It was an unofficial Gonzaga Day in Minute Maid on Sunday. Three GU alums were in the ballpark.

The M’s entry, of course, is Marco Gonzales, who pitched the opener Friday.

Two former Bulldog teammates, starting designated hitter Taylor Jones and relief pitcher Brandon Bailey, were also there and made their major league debuts for Houston.

Bailey pitched the ninth inning, yielding two hits but no runs. The righthander made seven minor league stops in his four seasons since leaving GU with a 24-13 career record.

But it was Jones’ debut that was most anticipated in Houston.

The 6-foot-7 power hitter is considered the Astros’ first baseman of the future, though his present wasn’t as smooth as he might have liked. The Kent, Wash., native hit into a double play and struck out in two appearances against Yusei Kikuchi, before Abraham Toro pinch-hit for him in the fifth.

No matter. Jones has been through tough times before, though not last year at Triple-A , where he hit 22 home runs for the Astros’ Round Rock, Texas, affiliate.

He came to Gonzaga as a two-way player, but pitched more than he hit his first two seasons. At that point, not even Zag coach Mark Machtolf would have penciled him in as a future major leaguer.

“Probably not,” Machtolf said when asked that Sunday. “He continued to develop and, as a junior and senior, you could see it, because of the body and he just kept getting better. And he’s a really good first baseman, too.”

Plus, Jones, 26, has the right makeup to patiently wait his turn, Machtolf said.

“He’s going to continue to get better but he’s just a great, great person,” the veteran coach said. “He’s just a wonderful human being and he has a great temperament for the game. He’s competitive, but he’s not overly emotional. That’s why he’s been successful as a hitter because you have to deal with that failure.

“If they give him a chance, he will shine,” Machtolf added. “There’s a place for Taylor Jones in the big leagues, for sure.”

• Longevity counts. Or least it has for Kyle Seager. The dean of the roster is in his 10th season with the M’s. And now he’s fourth all-time on the franchise’s RBI list with 668.

He picked up that one in the first inning on a double to left-center field. It gave the Mariners an early lead and moved him past Mr. Mariner, Alvin Davis.

Davis played eight seasons in a Mariner uniform, but everyone in front of Seager – Edgar Martinez (1,261), Ken Griffey Jr. (1,216) and Jay Buhner (951) – all played at least 13 seasons with Seattle.

• Big innings mid-game are already causing the Mariners problems. The Astros struck for five runs in the fifth of Friday’s opener. They scored four in the fourth Saturday. And Sunday they put a four spot of the board against Kikuchi, also in the fourth.

The M’s led 4-1 heading into that inning and Kikuchi was working efficiently. That disappeared quickly, with the lefthander all of a sudden struggling to spot his fastball.

Before he left, Kikuchi had an inning that yielded three walks, two hits, more than 30 pitches and the lead. The difference Sunday? The Seattle bullpen kept the game close until the offense could get going. Six relievers combined for the lone run in 5 1/3 innings, giving up four hits and striking out eight.

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