Moments after Neris pitched his way into -- and out of -- a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, Maldonado slugged a solo homer to left field off reliever Andrés Muñoz to send the Astros to a 3-2 win over the Mariners on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
The win moved the Astros to within two games of the first-place Rangers in the American League West entering Sunday’s first-half finale.
“We needed it very badly against them,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We were 1-4 [vs. Seattle] going into today and ... we wanted to pick up a game or two this weekend. And the fact Texas lost. I didn’t think they had a good chance of losing, but baseball is baseball.”
Three takeaways from the massive win:
Neris escapes trouble
The eighth inning couldn’t have started any worse for Neris, who hit Ty France with a pitch and walked Teoscar Hernández and Eugenio Suárez to load the bases with no outs. At that point, the Mariners’ win probability peaked at 78.7 percent.
“It’s a hard situation and you try to be focused and throw the ball to home plate and execute the pitches and try to get the next three outs,” Neris said.
Neris struck out pinch-hitter Cal Raleigh, got pinch-hitter Mike Ford to pop out and struck out José Caballero looking to strand all three runners. A fired-up Neris dropped to one knee and pounded his chest, a moment that Maldonado said changed the momentum of a tied game.
“It looked bleak for a while there,” Baker said. “But then you get the one out and you say, ‘OK, hopefully a double play and get the second out.’”
Maldonado visited Neris on the mound prior to the final strikeout to make sure they were on the same page. Neris threw an 0-2 sinker right over the middle of the plate that froze Caballero.
“I said, ‘OK, I believe you, and here’s the pitch you wanted,’” Neris said.
Said Maldonado: “That guy has done it all year. Nothing surprises me. It surprised me more the walks than [escaping a jam] again. I think that guy deserves to be an All-Star.”
Maldonado stepped to the plate with one out in the eighth inning and crushed a 1-1 slider from Muñoz -- Seattle's best reliever -- for his sixth homer of the year. It was the Astros’ first hit since their two-run first inning -- a span of 22 plate appearances between hits.
“I think we took some momentum after the Neris inning,” Maldonado said. “The energy in the dugout was a little different. I feel like it was a huge win for us, especially tomorrow with a day game. Every time that Framber [Valdez] is on the mound, we’re expecting a win. That was huge for us.”
Maldonado’s hit was his first in the month of July.
“He had been struggling and [Muñoz] is tough,” Baker said. “He has good stuff over there. I’m just glad we could hold the lead and didn’t have to go any deeper in our bullpen than we did already.”
Valdez lobbies for All-Star start
Valdez, who was skipped in his previous start last weekend with an ankle sprain, allowed two runs and five hits in six innings while throwing 105 pitches, his 13th quality start of the season. He will enter the break with a American League-best 2.51 ERA and hopes to start the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Seattle.
“I think I worked really hard to be able to start the All-Star Game,” he said. “I lead the league in ERA. … It’s something that would mean a lot to me. That being said, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to pitch in the All-Star Game. I really want to pitch the first inning. If I don’t get the opportunity to do that, I probably wouldn’t pitch.”
Valdez showed no signs of the ankle injury that hampered him in his previous two starts.
“He looked real good,” Baker said. “He got his pitch count up higher than we wanted it to, and he wanted it to. Usually, he throws up a couple of double plays that get him out of trouble or limits his pitch count and you get two outs on one pitch. Today I don’t think Framber turned a double play.”