HOUSTON – Confronted with the challenge of facing Houston for the fourth time this season, Mariners starting pitcher Chris Flexen had something new for the Astros on Tuesday night.
And after Mariners starter Robbie Ray got rocked in his first two innings Monday, allowing four runs and three homers – he tried something different.
So yes, veteran MLB pitchers can learn new things. Or in Ray’s case, something he hadn’t tried in six years.
And for both pitchers, the creativity worked.
Flexen unveiled a slider against the Astros, helping him allow just two earned runs in 6 2/3 innings in Seattle’s 4-1 loss.
“I mixed in a new pitch today,” Flexen said after Tuesday’s game. “It was just random, to be honest. … I played catch (Monday) a little bit with it and added the slider, hoping to get the speed I was trying to hit.”
On the third pitch of the game, he threw the new pitch – a ball to Jose Altuve.
“I just went for it,” he said. “I think I was able to get a few outs with it, and it was nice. But it’s still a work in progress, and I didn’t throw it that great. But it’s something (opponents) are going to have to put on the scouting report.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais said Flexen was “just taking a little bit off the cutter,” when asked about the new pitch, not ready to call it a slider. “But I will say when I saw the first one, it was, ‘What’s that?’ ”
Ray allowed two homers on his four-seam fastball and one on a slider in the first two innings Monday. Even the outs in the first two innings were hit hard.
“Robbie has a very distinct Plan A,” Servais said. “He’s going to be super aggressive, and he’s going to come at you with a good fastball and a good slider off of that. And the Astros were all over him. They were not missing.
“And after the first two innings, it was, ‘OK, let’s try something different.’ Sometimes I don’t get involved in those conversations, but (Monday night) I was. I just grabbed him, and said, ‘Hey man, we’ve got to shake it up. I know you don’t have a definite Plan B. Let’s make one up.’ ”
And Ray did. Plan B was throwing two-seam fastballs – which generally have a little less velocity and more movement than four-seam fastballs – a pitch he hadn’t thrown since 2016.
“I felt like they were really on my four-seam (fastball),” Ray said. “I was thinking if I could get something to go the other way it might change the look. … I knew I needed to make an adjustment. … It seemed like the easiest fix for the situation.”
Servais wasn’t expecting to see two-seam fastballs, and Ray said he didn’t tell his catcher, Cal Raleigh, beforehand.
But it worked. He threw three scoreless innings after the second inning and got the win in the Mariners’ 7-4 victory.
“I was pretty surprised I was able to spot it up as effectively as I did,” Ray said. “I got three zeros with it.”
Ray said he is not sure if he will continue to use the two-seam fastball because he has had success with the four seam-slider combination. It’s what helped him win the AL Cy Young Award last season.
But if there is another night like Monday, he could bring it out again. It helped save him from what could have been a rough game.
“It wasn’t a pretty outing and not one of his best,” Servais said. “You’re going to have 32 starts every year in the big leagues, and you are going to have five or six just like that. Most guys don’t get out of the third (inning). He figured a way to get through five innings and helped us win the ballgame.”
Reliever Erik Swanson (right elbow) threw a scoreless inning with Triple-A Tacoma on Tuesday, and Servais said Swanson “came out of it feeling OK.”
“The (velocity) was what you would expect out of (Swanson), in the 92-94 (mph) range, and he threw all of his pitches. We’ll see when we get home when he will be activated.”
Swanson’s return might be imminent, but there is no timetable for some other important players.
Designated hitter Kyle Lewis (concussion) is “still having some symptoms and issues going through the protocol stuff and not doing any baseball activity at all.”
Catcher Tom Murphy (dislocated left shoulder) is feeling better, Servais said, “but he hasn’t done any catching yet.”
Servais said he heard outfielder Mitch Haniger (ankle) has gotten into the batting cage, “but he is not running yet.”
Ray had a new look Wednesday. His mustache was gone. “A cat jumped up and licked it off my face,” he said, without cracking a smile.