By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
HOUSTON — Even against a team as weak as the Houston Astros, the Seattle Mariners’ struggles against left-handed starting pitching are difficult to overlook or — on Sunday — overcome.
The Mariners failed to finish a four-game a sweep against the worst team in baseball as they were shut down and shut out by rookie left-hander Brett Oberholtzer in a 2-0 loss at Minute Maid Park
Never heard of Oberholtzer?
Despite its many letters, Oberholtzer is far from a well-known name in major league baseball. Then again, even the most diehard baseball fans probably couldn’t name more than three or four Astros players this season.
Oberholtzer was one of four minor leaguers acquired by the Astros from the Atlanta Braves in a trade for Michael Bourn in July of 2011. It was a trade many baseball analysts believed Houston general manager Ed Wade got fleeced. None of the players in the trade, including Oberholtzer, were considered top prospects at the time.
But on Sunday, he looked like an All-Star against the Mariners, pitching nine scoreless innings, allowing four hits with one walk and five strikeouts. He became the first Astros pitcher to pitch a complete-game shutout this season. With the outing, he improved to 4-1 with a 2.79 ERA in nine appearances, including six starts.
“Their guy did a great job against us,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He was a strike thrower. He had great stuff and used all of his pitches. It felt like he could throw anything at any time. I was impressed.”
Wedge was not impressed with his hitters, who managed just four singles in the game. The Mariners’ last extra base hit came on Friday night.
The inability to hit left-handed starters has been an issue all season. The Mariners record in those games is 20-25, which is about the same against right-handers. But Saturday’s 3-1 win where they had six singles was one of those wins. And there was the game earlier this season against the Astros when Erik Bedard started and Seattle managed just one hit in the victory. The Mariners came into Sunday’s game hitting just .228 with a .373 slugging percentage against left-handed starters. And they will face left-handers today and Tuesday in Kansas City.
“The right-handers (batters) need to step up, it’s as simple as that,” Wedge said. “We’ve had our struggles against left-handers. And whenever that’s the case, your right-handers, whether it’s switch hitters or straight right-handers, they’re the ones that have to do the damage. I feel like our left-handers hang in there pretty well. But our right-handers have to be doing better.”
Of the Mariners four hits, two came from switch-hitters Nick Franklin and Kendrys Morales and two came from lefties Kyle Seager and Brad Miller.
“He was just keeping us off balance,” Franklin said. “He mixed up his pitches well and we didn’t have any timely hits to go along with it.”
The lack of offense overshadowed an outstanding outing from Seattle starter Hisashi Iwakuma. The right-hander pitched seven shutout innings, allowing six hits and striking out seven while walking just one.
“I thought Kuma was strong and had something on the end of his pitches today,” Wedge said.
Sixteen of Iwakuma’s outs came via ground ball or strikeout.
“This is a very aggressive team and we know they’ll swing first pitch,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “So I was just keeping the ball down and relying on the movement on my sinker and my split-finger late in the count.”
Iwakuma got some help from Franklin in the fourth inning. With runners on second and third and two outs, Franklin made a nice diving stop on a hard-hit ground ball up the middle by L.J. Hoes. Franklin fired to first to get the out and save two runs.
Wedge lifted Iwakuma after the seventh inning and 99 pitches.
“We’ve been pretty consistent with how we’ve monitored his workload all year,” Wedge said. “He’s getting pretty close to an innings threshold that’s up there and we are getting deeper in the year. He’d done his job today.”
Iwakuma wasn’t upset about the decision even with the results that followed.
“I’m just out there to do my job,” he said. “If the skipper wants me to go another inning, I will go. If not, I’m totally fine with that.”
Wedge called on Charlie Furbush to pitch the eighth. The lanky lefty gave up a lead-off double to Jose Altuve, who reached out and poked a pitch into right.
“He hit it down the line, can’t do much about it,” Furbush said. “It was the pitch I wanted to throw. He went and got it.”
Jason Castro followed with a screaming double into right-center to score Altuve.
“I just left it down the middle,” Furbush said.
Castro advanced to third on Chris Carter’s fly ball and scored on pinch-hitter Brandon Barnes’s squeeze bunt. It was a little odd considering Barnes fouled off an attempted squeeze bunt on the pitch before. But Astros manager Bo Porter decided it was worth trying twice.
“Not much you can do,” Wedge said. “Guy did a good job. Short of popping him up or throwing right at him there isn’t much you can do.”
A 2-0 deficit was way too much for the Mariners to overcome on Sunday with a lefty on the mound.