HOUSTON — There were some much harder-hit balls by the Mariners in this latest defeat, though the knowledge of just who they’re playing won’t make it any easier to swallow.
Several teams have hit balls hard against the Houston Astros this season, yet the Mariners are the only one that keeps losing more often than they win against the American League’s bottom feeder. This latest 3-2 defeat Tuesday was tough to take for several reasons, including the fact the Mariners outhit their opponents while logging 15 strikeouts against them.
But in the end, a team that has taken on a very different on-field look from the one that left spring training once again could not find a way to get it done when it mattered.
“We had guys on and hit balls hard, just things didn’t go our way,” said Justin Smoak, who had two singles and a 400-foot fly ball to center field that was caught at the warning track.
But the Mariners had precious few hits after the fifth inning, other than a Kendrys Morales solo homer to left-center in the eighth that cut Houston’s lead to just a run.
Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma managed to strike out 11 batters in five innings despite saying he lacked his best stuff, but a third-inning homer by Marwin Gonzalez put the Astros up to stay.
Houston then added a third run that same inning when Iwakuma walked Carlos Pena intentionally to load the bases with two out, only to hit ensuing batter Justin Maxwell on the hand with a pitch to make it a 3-1 game. A crowd of 13,929 at Minute Maid Park watched the Mariners go down in order rather meekly in the ninth to fall to 8-14 on the season.
As the days pass without Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez atop the batting order, the options for the Mariners become fewer.
This is a much slower team all-around than the one that left spring training and the near-disintegration of Brendan Ryan in the No. 9 spot has eliminated much of the hoped-for speed game altogether. The Mariners pinch-hit for Ryan with Robert Andino in the seventh, only to see the latter stand there and take a called third strike.
Then, when Andino was due up again in the ninth, there were no natural shortstop options to replace him in the field had the Mariners used Jason Bay or Carlos Peguero as a pinch-hitter.
The game of roster roulette being played by the Mariners as they wait for Saunders to return caught up with them in the first inning when Raul Ibanez misplayed a Chris Carter double to left and allowed a run to score from first base. Ibanez, hitting just .160, also stranded five base runners his first two times up and has played the field more than he or the Mariners expected with all the injuries.
At a time several veterans have cooled off, the rise of some younger hitters is something the Mariners hope leads to better things. Smoak has worked on his hitting of sliders and put good contact on the ball he drove to deep center with two on in the fifth.
“It was a slider and I hit it well, but I just didn’t really get all into it,” he said. “I finally stayed on a slider and was able to hit it up the middle but had nothing to show for it.”
Smoak has tried to slow his game down somewhat from an anxious first few weeks that saw him enter play Tuesday hitting just .208. His two hits lifted that average to .224.
Iwakuma kept the game close despite again fighting through blister problems. The Mariners plan to start him on regular rest his next time out, then back him off a few days to give his blister time to heal.
“It’s all about being able to monitor and manage what the situation is right now,” Iwakuma said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. “I just have to battle with it each day. And then, that day, when I’m on the mound, I’m having our trainers work on it every inning, it’s just that part that’s been tough.
“But I’ve been able to pitch every time out.”
Iwakuma had tried to run a two-seam fastball in on Maxwell, only to hit him and force him to leave the game. Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he had Iwakuma walk Pena intentionally because he liked the matchup with Maxwell.
“It’s just specifics of the way he swings and the way Kuma pitches,” Wedge said. “I don’t want to get too in-depth on it, but it was just a better matchup for us. Kuma’s not somebody you worry about walking. For that matter, you don’t worry about him actually hitting anybody, but that’s what happened there.”
Wedge said he’s encouraged by how hard the Mariners hit the ball at times, but they’re still not getting the job done.
“We had a lot of hard outs, we had a lot of long outs,” he said. “But we still need to do better than that. ... It’s all about winning and losing and we still have to find ways to win ballgames.”