Series loss to Houston a gut punch to Mariners' October dreams

September 28th, 2023

SEATTLE -- It didn’t matter that the Mariners entered this week’s pivotal series against the Astros having mostly bested the team that’s tormented them for years throughout the 2023 season. It also didn’t matter that Houston has been on a bit of a September spiral. In the nearly 12 months since their gut-wrenching defeat in last year’s American League Division Series, the Mariners have acknowledged in each meeting with the Astros that the path to the promised land will run through their division rivals.

And though this week’s matchup arrived one week before the postseason officially begins, it has served as a de-facto playoff -- with the winner leaving T-Mobile Park on Wednesday night alone in controlling its own destiny toward October.

It had all the tense ingredients that have made this rivalry simmer, including the third benches-clearing incident this season, the latest sparked by Astros reliever Hector Neris allegedly making a homophobic slur in Spanish towards Julio Rodríguez. It also had a frustratingly familiar outcome for the Mariners, an 8-3 defeat that put the fate of their season in jeopardy.

  • Games remaining (4): vs. TEX (4)
  • Standings update: The Mariners (85-73) fell four games behind the Rangers (89-69), who won in Anaheim. They also fell to 1 1/2 games behind second-place Houston (87-72), which holds the third and final AL Wild Card spot. Toronto (87-70), which also lost on Wednesday, is a half-game up on Houston for the second AL Wild Card spot. The Mariners are the first team on the outside looking in.
  • Tiebreakers: Win vs. Houston (9-4); lose vs. Texas (1-8); likely win vs. Toronto (3-3, tiebreaker based on intradivision record).

“Our season is not over,” manager Scott Servais said. “We just need help right now ... which is unfortunate.”

The Astros seized the emotional edge and momentum after the benches-clearing commotion at the end of the sixth, plating three decisive runs in the seventh to extend their one-run edge into a runaway win. The Mariners, meanwhile, had just one baserunner the rest of the way.

Front and center in this gut-wrenching defeat was Seattle’s star center fielder, as Rodríguez struck out four times for just the third time in his career, including twice on three pitches -- headlined by the K that led Neris to point and shout at him, and Rodríguez to retaliate in kind.

It wasn’t just that Rodríguez whiffed as often as he did; it was that his punchouts occurred in moments with Seattle carrying a combined eight baserunners. Overall, the Mariners went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position and stranded 13 baserunners. In this spiraling September, they are hitting .217/.303/.324 in those sequences, with a .627 OPS that ranks third lowest in baseball.

Their lone RISP hit on Wednesday was a two-run single from Eugenio Suárez in the fourth with the bases loaded, just after the Astros rallied a four-spot against rookie Bryce Miller that gave Houston a 4-1 lead. It created momentum, but it also felt like there was more damage to be done.

Suárez’s knock came directly after Rodríguez’s most glaring strikeout, also with the bases loaded and only one out. It was the latest among Seattle’s 68 with runners in scoring position this month, third most in MLB, and maybe among the most stinging, given the stakes of the moment and the star potential in the batter’s box. The oft-affable Rodríguez was seen slamming his bat in the dugout afterward in a rare sign of anger.

“He wants to be the guy to kind of get the big hit, get us over the hump a little bit,” Servais said. “When you try too hard and you get out ahead of yourself, you don't stay in the moment.”

There was an equally frustrating "what if" moment in the first, when the Mariners jumped on Framber Valdez for a leadoff homer from J.P. Crawford and consecutive walks from Rodríguez and Suárez. With no outs, two on and a pitcher with well-chronicled challenges when an outing begins to spiral, the Mariners only came away with the one run.

“When you create situations and you don't score, obviously, it's something that we've got to be better [at],” Suárez said. “If we want to win games, we've got to do a better job in those situations.”

Even on the heels of Tuesday’s resounding victory and with the All-Star Valdez in a second-half stumble, Wednesday was always going to represent a huge challenge for Miller, who’d held Houston scoreless in 12 1/3 combined innings over his two starts earlier this year against the team he grew up rooting for. Through Wednesday's outing, the rookie is operating on a career-high 151 innings (combined with his work in the Minors) and pitching in his first pennant chase, let alone his first MLB season.

The Mariners aren’t mathematically out of it, but they no longer control their own destiny. The salt in that wound is that the outcome of that fate came at the hands of a team it has long looked to supplant.