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Commentary: Once again, Mariners foiled by Astros, and this time the blow might be fatal

Julio Rodriguez strikes out during the eighth inning of Seattle's 8-3 loss against the Houston Astros at T-Mobile Park on Wednesday.  (Getty Images)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

The Seattle Mariners have long been keenly aware that the Houston Astros stand as the reigning beacon of strength in the AL West until they knock that distinction aside. And on Wednesday, the Mariners had another in a succession of chances to do just that — or at least to open the door wide to such a power shift in the coming days.

But once again, the Mariners failed, in an 8-3 loss that was as frustrating in its own way as their 18-inning playoff heartbreaker against Houston that ended the 2022 season. By the time this one ended, the two teams had engaged in their third bench-clearing incident of the season, the Astros were celebrating giddily on the bench, and the Mariners were left to ponder how they’ve wilted against the pressure of a do-or-die 10-game stretch to end the regular season.

Oh, the Mariners still have slight playoff life, but it will take a confluence of events that are increasingly unlikely with each loss — five defeats in the first six games of that 10-game gauntlet, and 16 in 25 September games. Their hopes of winning the AL West, which once seemed a realistic goal in the midst of an August surge, expired with the loss, coupled with a Texas win in Anaheim (except in the remote case of a three-way tie).

Earlier in the day, Astros manager Dusty Baker had referred to “bad blood” between the two teams, and it certainly seemed to overflow in this one.

“It’s a team that we’ve competed very hard against over the last couple of years,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They are a team that has been to the World Series multiple times, the team that we want to climb over. OK, if somebody wants to call that bad blood, then so be it. We want to beat them. That’s not good blood, it’s bad blood — whatever you want to call it. I do respect them. They have a good team. And they’ve won, so you’ve got to climb over them. And until we do, that’s where we’re at.”

Servais had taken slight umbrage before Wednesday’s game when it was characterized to him as one of the most pivotal in franchise history.

“Well, there’s been a lot of pivotal games in franchise history,’’ he replied. “This might be the most recent one.”

Call it what you’d like, but it rippled with major significance, no matter how you’d rate its historical heft. The winner would be in firm control of a playoff berth, the loser left in a state of desperation, needing outside help as well as near-perfect finish — which is precisely where the Mariners find themselves heading into the final four games against a Texas team that has dominated them.

An appropriate playoff atmosphere permeated T-Mobile Park on Wednesday. You felt it in the large mass of media on hand, and in the tension that hung in the air from the very first pitch. And that tension spilled over in the sixth inning when Astros reliever Hector Neris chirped aggressively at Julio Rodriguez while strutting toward Rodriguez after striking him out in a key situation — an apparent unprovoked action that infuriated Rodriguez and caused both dugouts and bullpens to empty. The word after the game was that Neris had reportedly taunted Rodriguez with a homophobic slur in Spanish, which was confirmed by Eugenio Suarez, the on-deck hitter.

The incident seemed to have the potential of firing up the Mariners, many of whom appeared irate — but instead was a precursor to a three-run Astros rally in the seventh that broke open a close game.

Many of the flaws and shortcomings of the Mariners came to the fore in the game. They struck out 16 times, typifying their overwhelming swing-and-miss tendency. They squandered opportunity after opportunity early in the game, stranding 13 and going 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position, variations of a seasonlong theme.

“Ultimately, it’s kind of been our Achilles’ heel all year, coming up with that big hit in the moment,” Servais said.

Rodriguez, who carried the Mariners in July and August but has struggled mightily over the last 10 games, had perhaps his worst game as a major-leaguer, especially considering the stakes — a walk, and then four straight strikeouts in which he stranded a total of eight runners. That futility no doubt lowered Rodriguez’s tolerance for Neris’ antics.

“Maybe he’s trying a little too hard,” Servais said of Rodriguez. “I think that’s what everybody looks at. He wants to be the guy to get the big hit to get us over the hump a little bit. When you try too hard, and you get out ahead of yourself, you don’t stay in the moment. … But he’s young. He’s an awesome player. He’s going to learn from it. Hopefully when he’s up there tomorrow night with two guys on, he does slow it down a little bit.”

The Mariners also continued to pay the price for their heavy reliance on tiring rookie starters down the stretch, as Bryce Miller gave a valiant effort but yielded four runs in the fourth inning after JP Crawford’s first-inning homer had staked them to a tenuous lead.

The Mariners came into the game with a 9-3 record against Houston this year, raising hope they were ready to break down that barrier against the defending World Series champs. But with the season on the line, it was the Astros who won the series and exposed the vulnerabilities of Seattle.

“Coming into this series, we feel good about our chances,” Servais said. “We played very well against Houston this year. But they got it done here. They out executed us.”

The Mariners in 2023 have been a team that confounds perception. Just when you write them off, they come roaring back into prosperity. And conversely, just when they’ve won you back over, they recede once again to the point that any hope of a revival seems dire.

This current predicament is dire squared, so we’ll see if the Mariners have one more plot twist left in them. But no longer in control of their fate, they’ll also need some losses from the Astros (whom they now trail by a game and a half, with possession of the tiebreaker) against Arizona, and/or the Blue Jays (whom they trail by two games, also with possession of the tiebreaker), against Tampa Bay.

It’s all moot, of course, if the Mariners can’t handle Texas — a team that has beaten them eight of nine times this season and is heating up at the precise point the Mariners are lurching toward the finish.

It’s an altogether depressing scenario for the Mariners, who arrived on Wednesday ready to showcase a shifting of power in the division but left in the familiar position of once again looking up longingly at the Astros.