HOUSTON -- In case you were wondering, Justin Verlander was thinking about a second straight no-hitter on Saturday night.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t,” Verlander said. “You’re counting the innings from the first, instead of the fifth. It’s always fun.”
Verlander didn't become the second pitcher in MLB history to toss back-to-back no-nos. Johnny Vander Meer, who achieved the feat for the Reds in 1938, remains the only to do so. But Verlander is going so good right now that even the most improbable achievements seem possible.
All Verlander did in the Astros' 2-1 victory over the Mariners at Minute Maid Park was solidify his American League Cy Young Award credentials with seven innings of one-run ball that lowered his ERA to a dazzling 2.52 and earned the ace his Major League-leading 18th win of the season.
Along the way, Verlander checked off a pair of boxes that’ll likely someday be on his Hall of Fame plaque: He crossed the 200-inning mark for the 12th time in 13 seasons and the 30-start threshold for the 13th time in 14 years.
“It’s something I take pride in,” Verlander said. “Take the ball, go out there, don’t put extra stress on the organization or your teammates. Find a way to go out there and get some outs. I think that mentality has kind of led me to here, where I’m looking for every single reason to stay in a start.”
Shed Long’s leadoff single in the third ended Verlander's 11-inning hitless streak. Long then scored on a Dee Gordon triple into the right-field corner, also bringing an end to Verlander's 16-inning scoreless streak.
And that was it. Verlander allowed only two hits over the next four innings and ended his night with a fist bump for rookie third baseman Abraham Toro, who stranded a runner at third with a nice play on a Tom Murphy grounder to end the seventh.
“It wasn’t a no-hitter, but it was pretty damn good,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “He was in command of everything. It’s not as easy as he makes it look. He’s ultra prepared, takes care of his body.
“He’s a throwback. He loves being the workhorse. He wants the responsibility of pitching deep into games and making all his starts. That’s all a tribute to how he was raised in the game and the responsibility he takes as being a premier pitcher.”
After Mariners starter Yusei Kikuchi blanked the Astros for the first five innings, Alex Bregman led off the sixth with his 34th home run of the season. Houston took the lead in the seventh when rookie Kyle Tucker led off with a pinch-hit double and later scored on a Josh Reddick sacrifice fly.
Tucker lofted a fly ball to left field that hit high off the wall and bounced into the Crawford Boxes. He then circled the bases, thinking he had a home run.
However, a replay review confirmed crew chief Joe West's call that the ball hit below the yellow home-run marker and was touched by a fan as it rebounded into the stands. But Tucker moved to third on a wild pitch by Austin Adams and scored on Reddick's flyout.
For Tucker, it was another nice moment in his second stint in the Majors. He’s hitting .286 in only 14 at-bats, but he has made some key contributions for an Astros team that is 93-50 and rolling toward its third straight 100-win season. Houston's magic number to clinch the AL West is down to 11.
“It’s awesome to contribute,” Tucker said. “If I can get in there any way, I can help out. I feel a little bit more relaxed this go around. This team is pretty well synced up with each other, so I’m feeding off that. We’ve got a great clubhouse.”
Bregman drew a first-inning walk before his home run in the sixth, making him the third player in franchise history with at least 100 walks, 100 runs and 100 RBIs in a single season. The Angels' Mike Trout is the only other big leaguer to do it this season. Jeff Bagwell did it six times for the Astros and Lance Berkman twice.
With the Astros' bullpen working 18 innings in the first two games of this series, Hinch had a long list of relievers he wanted to avoid using.
In the eighth, Hinch called on right-hander Josh James, who was making his third appearance since returning from a six-week stint on the injured list with right shoulder soreness.
Because James' stuff is so impressive -- a 100 mph fastball and a knee-buckling slider -- he figures prominently into the Astros' postseason bullpen plans. On Saturday, he pitched his way in and out of trouble in a scoreless eighth.
“Now that he’s healthy, his confidence should grow,” Hinch said, “and he knows he’s in this mix. I was down half a bullpen tonight, and he knew he was going to be a leverage guy. He can handle it.”