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Seattle Mariners

Mariners lose to Astros after disastrous seventh inning

Houston’s Jose Altuve steals the 300th base of his career during the seventh inning Friday against Seattle in Houston.  (Getty Images)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

HOUSTON – Few pitchers, if any, have been as dominant as the Mariners’ George Kirby over the past few weeks.

Few pitchers, if any, have enjoyed pitching against the Houston Astros as much as Kirby over the past few years.

That was no different Friday night, when the 26-year-old right-hander threw six sharp innings against the Mariners’ American League West nemesis to stake Seattle a late two-run lead at Minute Maid Park.

What was different this time: The Mariners’ bullpen couldn’t keep the lead.

In the moments after the Astros’ 5-3 come-from-behind victory, Mariners manager Scott Servais said a decision was made to pull the starting pitcher after the sixth inning to protect an ailing right knee that has been bothering Kirby lately.

“It’s been bugging me for the past couple weeks, and I’ve been pitching through it,” Kirby said. “Obviously, I’d like to go back out there, but we decided that probably the best idea was to end it there and give it to the bullpen.”

Kirby added that he is “not at all” concerned about his knee.

He had thrown 88 pitches, allowing one run on four hits with no walks and three strikeouts.

Over his past four starts since April 15, he had a 1.13 ERA with two walks and 28 strikeouts in 24 innings. And his 1.59 career ERA against the Astros is the second best among active pitchers, trailing only Shohei Ohtani (1.21 ERA).

In Colorado two weeks ago, Kirby was pulled after five innings (at 88 pitches that day, too) when the knee issue had also flared up, Servais said.

“We have a long season ahead of us, and he is so important what we’re doing,” Servais said.

After the sixth inning Friday, with the Mariners up 3-1, Servais and pitching coach Pete Woodworth huddled with Kirby in the tunnel behind the visitors’ dugout. Servais said Kirby was honest about his ailing knee in the moment, and it was a group decision to turn the game over the bullpen.

“You’ve got to listen to your players; (he) was honest, and I appreciate that,” Servais said.

Jorge Polanco hit a solo homer in the third inning, Dylan Moore added a two-run shot off Astros starter Ronel Blanco to give the Mariners a 3-1 lead in the fifth.

Things unraveled quickly after Kirby was pulled, when the Mariners played “probably the worst couple innings of baseball we’ve played all year,” as Servais put it.

The Astros sent 10 batters to the plate in the seventh, scoring four runs off three Seattle relievers, who allowed two hits and five walks, with one error.

The M’s bullpen had ranked No. 1 in the majors in most major statistical categories over the past three weeks.

“You’ve got to give (the Astros) credit – they took the walks,” Servais said. “But we helped them. We gave it away tonight. It’s unfortunate …”

Trent Thornton’s 12-inning scoreless streak out of the bullpen for the Mariners ended after he issued a leadoff walk in the seventh to Jeremy Peña then took a hard-hit comebacker off his left leg from Yainer Diaz on what ended up as an infield single.

With one out, Servais called on reliever Gabe Speier, who walked the first batter he faced, pinch-hitter Jake Meyers, to load the bases.

Mauricio Dubon followed with a sacrifice fly to right fielder Mitch Haniger, who was camped under the ball when center fielder Julio Rodriguez crept in blindly and bumped into Haniger. Still, Haniger made the catch, but couldn’t get a throw off toward home.

Rodriguez said afterward that neither he nor Haniger could hear each other calling for the ball because of the crowd noise from the 33,796 in attendance.

That allowed Diaz to score easily from third base.

Jose Altuve, the Astros’ 34-year-old second baseman and longtime Mariners nemesis, dropped down a bunt single off Speier to drive in Meyers for the go-ahead run from third base with two outs.

“Altuve has beaten us in a lot of different ways – he’s never beaten us with a bunt before,” Servais said.

Speier walked the next two batters – sluggers Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez – prompting Servais to call on a third reliever, Cody Bolton.

Bolton walked the first batter he faced, Alex Bregman, on a 3-2 pitch that appeared to catch the outside corner. Bolton didn’t get the call from plate umpire Adrian Johnson, and Altuve walked home for the final run of the inning.

“We didn’t deserve to win that game tonight,” said catcher Cal Raleigh, whose errant throw to third on a pickoff attempt allowed a run to score in the seventh.

“We know that (the Astros) are never out of here, and you can’t give them free bases and free outs … and we did that tonight. We messed up.”

The Mariners, trailing by two, quickly threatened in the top of the eighth inning after back-to-back singles from Josh Rojas and Rodriguez off Ryan Pressly.

Then, more frustration.

With Rojas and Rodriguez both in scoring position, Polanco struck out.

Haniger followed with a high fly ball to straightaway right field. Tucker camped underneath and made the catch, and Rojas took several aggressive steps toward home, bluffing as if he was going home.

He retreated with help from third-base coach Manny Acta, who had his hands up in a “no-go” sign.

Rodriguez, however, had his head down after tagging up at second and didn’t see Rojas’ bluff. Tucker threw home and Rodriguez ended up caught between bases – and the resulting 9-2-4-1-6-2 double play ended the inning and ended any real hope of a Mariners rally.

The Mariners’ 23-year-old center fielder owned up to the baserunning gaffe.

“I just didn’t pick up (Rojas) on third,” he said.

“I should have done that and not assume that he was gonna go on that throw.”

Josh Hader, the Astros’ new, $95 million closer, retired the Mariners in order in the ninth.