No matter how much people might try to force themselves to focus on the game being played and forget about all that was missing, including the first three-plus months of the 2020 season, it was impossible to ignore the differences of the Seattle Mariners’ first game of this truncated and unique 60-game season at Minute Maid Park.
The empty seats of a stadium without fans, the missing din produced by that large collection of fans that drowns out the players and coaches yelling on the field, stifles the crack of the bat when ball meets barrel or the booming thump of a catcher’s mitt when receiving a mid-90s fastball, you don’t realize you miss that energy until it’s replaced by fake crowd noise and cardboard cutouts. Normally broadcasts amplify those sounds of the game with field microphones. They were not and won’t be needed this season.
But what was most noticeable, watching through a television broadcast, was the absent ear-splitting cacophony of screaming fans and one of the loudest and most obnoxious sound systems in the American League when the Houston Astros’ potent lineup put together its inevitable big inning against a Seattle Mariners bullpen that showed why it was expected to struggle this season even before COVID-19 interrupted it.
And yet, for all that was different, the result for the Mariners, at least when it comes to playing the Astros, felt very much the same in seasons past — defeat. The Astros exploded for five runs in the fifth inning —highlighted by Michael Brantley’s three-run homer off of reliever Zac Grotz — and cruised to an easy 8-2 victory Friday.
For those who have forgotten the carnage of last season where the Mariners went 1-18 vs. Houston, this was 11th straight loss for Seattle at Minute Maid Park, and 14th consecutive loss to the Astros. Yes, the Mariners didn’t win a game in Houston last season, going 0-10.
For a while, it looked like maybe Seattle’s fortunes might be different in the building where garbage cans were used for more nefarious purposes than as trash receptacles.
The Mariners took a 2-1 lead into the fifth inning thanks to solo homers from Kyle Lewis and Kyle Seager off of reigning American League Cy Young winner Justin Verlander.
Verlander needed all of six pitches to retire Shed Long Jr., Evan White and Seager in order in the first inning. Batting cleanup, Lewis stepped to the plate to start the second inning. He watched a slider away and then gobbled up a 95-mph at the belt, smashing it on to the train tracks above the wall in left field for a solo homer and 1-0 lead. MLB Statcast measured the homer to have an exit velocity of 111 mph, while traveling 436 feet.
Houston answered in the bottom of third against Seattle starter Marco Gonzales. Josh Reddick led off with a double and later scored on Martin Maldonado’s single to left field.
Verlander, who cruised through six innings, allowing two runs on three hits with a walk and seven strikeouts to get the win, made only one other mistake in his outing. With one out in the fourth inning, Seager worked a 2-0 count and took advantage of fastball in the middle, launching a solo homer to right field.
The 2-1 lead lasted for only an inning.
In the fifth, Gonzales gave up a lead-off single to Aledmys Diaz. Seattle should’ve gotten at least one out when Seager made a diving/lunging stop on a hard ground ball off the bat of Maldonado. But his awkward throw from his knees to second wasn’t caught by Long, who watched it hit off his glove and go into the outfield.
Giving away outs against the Astros’ deep lineup isn’t helpful. Gonzales got George Springer hit a soft roller to the mound for the first out of the inning. But Jose Altuve legged out a groundball in the hole between shortstop and third base. J.P. Crawford made a nifty backhand play, but an extra step to gather himself made the throw late. Crawford also overlooked Maldonado being overly aggressive going around second base and missed a possible play there instead of the low-chance play against the speedy Altuve.
With Gonzales’ pitch count at 73, Mariners manager Scott Servais decided to go to Grotz to face Alex Bregman. After getting up 0-2, Grotz watched as Bregman fouled off two pitches and then dumped a line drive into right field that couldn’t be caught on Mallex Smith’s diving attempt.
Brantley put the game out of reach moments later, turning on a 2-1 split-finger fastball on the inner half of the plate and putting into the empty seats in right field a three-run homer.
Given a 6-2 lead, Verlander worked another scoreless frame and turned it over to the bullpen for them to close out. The Astros added another run in the sixth and another in the seventh on a misplayed fly ball in left field.