HOUSTON -- On the verge of the 200th win in a legendary career, Justin Verlander lasted just two innings and was ejected.
Verlander coughed up six runs before he recorded his first six outs and dug the Astros into an insurmountable deficit. Damage already done, Verlander was tossed and Houston fell to the Mariners, 8-6, in the series opener on Thursday at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros right-hander appeared to pick off Mitch Haniger with two outs in the second inning, but home-plate umpire Nic Lentz ruled Verlander balked on the play. Instead of the inning ending, Verlander allowed a two-run home run to Denard Span and a solo shot to Jean Segura, a three-run swing in a critical second inning.
"The inning ended and JV came off the field," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "Obviously, we were all confused as to what is and what isn't a balk. We know the rule. The rule is a judgment play. If you're on one side of the ledger, you like [Lentz's] judgment. If you're on our side, you didn't like his judgment."
"Does that change the outcome of the game?" Verlander said. "I don't know. I wouldn't have thought so at the time with Paxton pitching, but it led to three more runs and we lost by two."
Verlander, who voiced frustration after the balk call on the field, said he was unaware he was ejected until he heard on the Astros' television broadcast that someone was tossed from the clubhouse tunnel. He returned to the dugout, asked Hinch who was thrown out and found out then it was him.
Verlander, who said he has never been penalized for a balk like Thursday's, reviewed the play on film and returned to the dugout in the middle of the second inning to "let [Lentz] know that I thought he was wrong."
"I don't know, man," Verlander said. "I just wanted some answers. I thought he screwed up. He clearly thought he didn't. Just hate for the ball to be taken out of my hands that way."
Verlander surrendered a home run, a triple, a double and a single to the Mariners' first four batters of the ballgame -- the first time in the live-ball era a team has hit for the cycle in reverse order to begin a game. The six runs are the most he's allowed with the Astros and raised his ERA from 2.19 to 2.50 in 52 pitches.
Submerged in a 6-0 hole after two, Marwin Gonzalez knocked in a pair with a two-run single in the third inning against Mariners lefty ace James Paxton. Tony Kemp, the only lefty in Houston's starting lineup, went 3-for-3 against Paxton with two doubles and a two-RBI single in Paxton's final at-bat in the sixth.
The Mariners put two insurance runs against reliever Will Harris in the sixth inning. Houston's bullpen was otherwise strong over seven innings after Verlander's abrupt exit. Astros relievers had not allowed a run in their last nine games, completing 24 1/3 scoreless innings prior to Thursday.
Tyler White hit a solo home run in the ninth inning off Mariners closer Edwin Diaz, but it wasn't enough to mount a comeback.
• Thursday marked the fifth time Verlander went two or fewer innings pitched. Verlander last pitched a two-inning game on June 4, 2017 against the White Sox.
• With three hits against Paxton, Kemp became the first left-handed hitter in the past two seasons to have three hits in a single game vs. the Canadian southpaw.
HE SAID IT
"I've never been called for that. He didn't say that I didn't gain ground to second, he said I stepped to third base -- which I guess I don't know enough about the rule. I hope somebody asks [Lentz]. I would like a clarification, personally, because I don't know what I did wrong based on what he told me. I would like to know, so that moving forward I can make an adjustment. That's the same thing I've done my entire career and I've never been called for that. Hopefully, he can explain that better to me." -- Verlander, on the balk call
The Astros will send right-hander Gerrit Cole to the mound at 7:10 p.m. CT on Friday against the Mariners at Minute Maid Park. Cole (10-4, 2.64 ERA) allowed three runs over five innings and 99 pitches Sunday at the Dodgers. Seattle will counter with Mike Leake (8-7, 4.16), who surrendered three runs in six innings vs. the Astros on July 31 and has taken the loss in both of his starts this season against Houston. Shortstop Carlos Correa is expected to return after a 36-game absence.