By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
SEATTLE — It’s early. There’s more than a week left in April, but the Mariners still might want to scrounge up some velvet ropes to keep the lines orderly near the panic button at Safeco Field after Monday’s 7-2 loss to Houston.
Hyperbole? You judge.
The M’s carried a six-game skid into the start of this three-game American League West cage match against the ever-hapless Astros, who had lost seven in a row (after losing 324 games over the previous three years).
But the Mariners had Felix Hernandez on the mound. The King. The best right-hander, arguably anyway, in the game. And Hernandez entered the night in top form at 3-0 (should have been 4-0) with a 1.91 ERA.
So what happens?
Tuesday dawns with the Mariners’ skid at seven, and the Astros looking to clinch a series victory.
“Really tough,” Hernandez said. “I’m the ace … I came in with the mentality to stop the losing streak, and I didn’t. It was not my best stuff today. Curveball was up and my changeup was up.”
For all that, Hernandez still allowed just two earned runs, which came on a homer by Matt Dominguez in the fifth and opened the scoring.
Four more runs, all unearned, scored in a nightmarish sixth inning that included a costly error by third baseman Kyle Seager, a bobble by catcher Mike Zunino on a stolen base and two outfielders running into walls.
That’s not all.
The diminishing pulse on the Mariners’ attack barely beeped the meter against lefty starter Dallas Keuchel (2-1) and the Houston bullpen. The Mariners failed to score three runs for the eighth time in their last 12 games.
“When you lose seven in a row,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “you’re looking for a lot of things. You’re looking for good pitching. You’re looking for defense. You’re looking for hits.”
All they got, pretty much, was Abraham Almonte’s line-hugging, two-run double, which answered Dominguez’s homer in the fifth before the plumbing began backing up in the sixth.
Houston got its final run on Marc Krauss’ homer in the eighth against Tom Wilhelmsen.
Keuchel gave up two runs and six hits in six innings before Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Josh Fields (yes, the former Mariners’ first-round pick) closed out he victory.
The decisive sixth started when Jose Altuve grounded a leadoff double past third. Dexter Fowler’s attempted sacrifice should have been an out at third when Zunino pounced on the ball and made a strong throw.
But Seager dropped the ball, which put runners at first and third with no outs. The Astros quickly cashed the error when Jason Castro sent a sacrifice fly to left.
“I’ve been happier,” Seager said. “It was a good throw. Zunino made a nice play. I just took my eye off (the ball) by trying to tag him too quickly.”
Fowler then stole second on a swinging third strike by George Springer — and did so without a throw because Zunino bobbled the ball in grabbing it from his glove. (Hey, Fowler might have beaten a strong throw.)
What’s certain is it all fell apart at that point.
Krauss lined a RBI single into right for 4-2 lead. Alex Presley followed with a drive to deep right that Stefen Romero reached but couldn’t catch as he slammed into the wall.
“Unfortunately, it just hit off my glove,” Romero said, “and I ran into the wall. If you get a glove on it … obviously, I should have made the catch.”
The result was an RBI triple.
Next, Dominguez sent a drive to deep left that Dustin Ackley couldn’t catch as he slammed into the wall. That went for an RBI double, and it was 6-2.
“It’s one of those plays,” Ackley said, “where you just try to jump at the last minute and hope it goes in your glove. Obviously, you know you’re going to hit the wall there.”
The small crowd, announced at 14,630, offered a derisive cheer when Robinson Cano handled Marwin Gonzalez’s routine grounder to second for the inning’s final out.
“Right now, were just not getting it done,” McClendon said. “I see energy. I don’t see a lot of execution right now on a lot of different fronts. Listen, it’s a work in progress.
“We’re going to be OK. That’s our 19th game of the season. Someone asked me, what do I say? I say, ‘The sky is falling in. Now, the Mariners are five games under .500. Pack up your bags. The season’s over with.’
“I think we’ll show up, and we’ll play.”
Yes, McClendon was being facetious about that sky-falling stuff. Even so, somebody look for those velvet ropes.