SEATTLE — This Seattle Mariners homestand wasn’t supposed to look pretty. Not with the two teams that duked it out against each other in last year’s World Series in town, not with ace James Paxton watching from the dugout while on the disabled list, and to top it all, a thick layer of wildfire smoke shrouding Safeco Field in a dreary haze.
But by the end of the fourth inning on Wednesday, it was just plain ugly, the Houston Astros blanking the Mariners with an eight-run lead.
Seattle did rally with a five-run sixth that cut the deficit to two runs, but by the end the Astros left town with a 10-7 victory that had Mariners starter Marco Gonzales walking back to the Mariners’ dugout after 11 hits and a career-high eight runs allowed in three-plus innings.
The Mariners (72-56) fell to 51⁄2 games back of the Astros (77-50) in the American League West standings and are 41⁄2 back of the Oakland Athletics, who finally lost a game Wednesday.
But just imagine how this 2-4 homestand would have looked had the Mariners not earned a balk-off win against the Dodgers on Saturday, or received Robinson Cano’s go-ahead, eighth-inning three-run home run in a 7-4 victory over Houston on Monday.
And just imagine where they’d be had they not swept the Astros in Houston almost two weeks ago.
That four-game sweep at the time looked like a momentum builder. But with consecutive series losses to the A’s, Dodgers and Astros after a series loss to the Rangers, that sweep was absolutely vital for the Mariners.
Since then they’ve used eight different starting pitchers in the past eight games — the first time the Mariners have had to do that since May of 1989. This was a run that included starts from Nick Vincent and Roenis Elias.
The Mariners entered Wednesday with the fifth-worst team ERA in the major leagues in August (4.99), one month after scoring the fewest runs of any team in July.
That’s why Seattle has gone from 53-31 at the end of June and 1 1/2 games back of the Astros (7 1/2 up on the A’s) to now staring at 17 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance with just over a month remaining in the season.
The Mariners bats found some life in a five-run sixth inning to pull within two.
Nelson Cruz, who hit a solo home run in the fourth, led off with a double. Denard Span singled, Ryon Healy lined a run-scoring single and Ben Gamel was hit by a pitch to chase Astros starter Charlie Morton.
Mike Zunino and Dee Gordon followed with a sacrifice fly each before Mitch Haniger got hold of an 87-mph sinker just off the plate for a two-run home run to center field.
That was Hainger’s 20th home run of the season and suddenly the Mariners were back in the game, trailing 9-7.
Tyler White hit a solo home run off Adam Warren in the top of the ninth to give Houston some insurance, not that it was needed.
Gonzales was told to take the day off on Sunday when he was previously scheduled to start. He said he hasn’t felt the effects of a career-high 145 2/3 innings pitched and 25 starts (he started seven games last season after missing 2016 with Tommy John surgery), but Mariners manager Scott Servais said he had noticed some lacking in Gonzales’ timing in his delivery.
The Astros didn’t hit him hard, but got about everything to fall for base hits, including six consecutive hits to start the fourth inning, capped by Jose Altuve’s run-scoring single for a 7-0 Astros lead.
“I don’t think Marco threw the ball that badly,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Obviously, it had been eight days since he’d been out there. They put some balls in play, got some hits, hit a few balls hard. It just wasn’t a clean outing for him.”
But the tone was set in the first. Haniger didn’t read fly ball to center field well and Tyler White ended up with an RBI triple off the wall, just after the Mariners had a potential double-play ball from Carlos Correa that could have ended the inning. Gonzales’ wild pitch scored White from third for a 2-0 Astros lead.
Gonzales entered August with a 3.37 ERA that’s now spiked to 4.32 four starts later. He’s allowed 23 runs and 38 hits in his past 20 innings pitched. He tied a career-high 12 hits allowed in Texas two starts ago, and Wednesday, he allowed a career-high eight earned runs.
“I had trouble keeping them off-balance today,” Gonzales said. “I think we have a lot of time left to get everything firing on all cylinders. This team has done a great job of when one part struggles, the other part steps up. We have September to get hot.”
Not that there aren’t other struggling Mariners — like Dee Gordon, who is 10-for-62 (.161) in August, though he hit a double in the fifth inning Wednesday. Mike Zunino is batting .177 this month (11-for-62) and Kyle Seager is hitting .197 (15-for-76).
That’s all making for very little time remaining on the Mariners’ 2018 playoff hopes.
The News Tribune’s TJ Cotterill contributed to this story.