Bats looking for breakthrough: 'Balls aren’t falling for us right now'

May 4th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Maybe it’s advantageous matchups in the Astros’ favor. Maybe it’s the two time zones it takes for the Mariners to travel here from Seattle. Maybe it’s a psychological burden of Houston’s long-standing perch atop the American League West. Maybe it’s merely circumstantial coincidence that Seattle struggles in Houston.

For whatever reason, Minute Maid Park continues to be a culprit for the Mariners, who went quietly in a 4-0 loss to their division rivals on Tuesday night and will now look to avoid a sweep in the finale against Justin Verlander, when they wrap a nine-game, three-city road trip.

Yet it has been this final city that has left the team searching for answers, an ongoing probe running on four years now. 

Seattle fell to 4-25 in Houston dating to the start of 2019. In those games, it has been outscored, 190-77, for a minus-113 run differential. Collectively, the club posted a slash line of .179/.267/.319 (.587 OPS) in 943 at-bats, including just four hits on Tuesday after five in this week’s series opener. None of the nine hits this week have been for extra bases.

It’s a vast contrast to the meeting against the Astros last month in Seattle, when the Mariners won two of three and, other than being stymied by Verlander, made a statement that weekend.

“No, they’re the same team,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said when asked whether he has noticed a difference. “Things are going their way. They play really well in this ballpark.”

The Mariners were shut out for the second night in a row for the first time since Sept. 24-25, 2019 -- also against these Astros -- though those games were at T-Mobile Park. They’ve never been blanked three times in a row in franchise history.

Of course, much has changed on the Mariners’ trajectory since going scoreless on those back-to-back nights nearly three years ago. In that era, they were days away from finishing in last place in the first season of a rebuild. On Tuesday, they dropped to .500 and aren’t even 15% through their schedule. The entire season is in front of them.

But on the heels of a 90-win season and heightened expectations, both inside and outside the clubhouse, the Mariners understand that their path to the postseason will continue to run through this ballpark and opponent.

“Yeah, it’s huge,” J.P. Crawford said when asked about playing more competitively in Houston. “But we're swinging the bat well. We’re lining out everywhere in the outfield. Balls aren’t falling for us right now.”

The team leader also tempered any extra motivation against the reigning AL champs, or if the offense is pressing.

“We treat every game the same,” Crawford said. “Honestly, every team is the same to me. We're going to go out there and try to beat them every day, no matter where they are.”

Crawford is the only player who was in Seattle’s lineup for those consecutive shutouts in 2019 and the two this week. His individual rise has paralleled the team’s in the 32 months since. Back then, Crawford tripped over himself when striking out against Gerrit Cole, and on Tuesday, he also had a notable punchout, but one that felt more symbolic in the grand scheme of Seattle’s frustrations.

Crawford was called for strike three by CB Bucknor in a 2-2 count to lead off the fifth inning, at which point the oft-level-headed shortstop fervently voiced his displeasure but was not ejected. Many in the Mariners’ dugout backed him.

“You never try to show anyone up like that, but those calls, that can't happen,” Crawford said. “We get penalized if we don't play well. Umpires, if they don't do well, they're basically fine. Their job is secure and they don't get penalized for nothing, and I think that's stupid. I feel like if they would get penalized for everything, they would call much better games.”

That moment wasn’t exactly a breakthrough point -- it instead changed Crawford’s approach.

“Especially with a late call like that, it just flips,” Crawford said. “For me, it just puts me in an angry spot the rest of the game, and you try to do something different offensively because you know every call is questionable. It takes you out of your game a little bit.”

The Mariners have dropped six of eight on this road trip after a promising 7-2 homestand.

“We're at a moment in time,” Servais said. “This happens throughout the course of a year. Your offense gets slowed down, and when you don't hit it looks like you're not trying. That's not the case at all. Our guys are grinding. They're trying to try to get something going.”