HOUSTON – The ball rocketed off Jeremy Pena’s bat at a speed and trajectory that made its result a given.
As for its final destination, well, that was interrupted by the lowest of three massive metal pennants sitting about 50 feet above the left field playing surface of Minute Maid Park, bolted to one of the light stanchions. The decorative flags with the words “American League Champions” signify each time the Astros have represented their league in the World Series – 2005 (National League), 2019 and 2021 (American League) but didn’t win. A gold 2017 pennant with the words “World Series Champions” sits on their other stanchion.
Pena’s towering two-run homer in the sixth inning, which crushed Seattle’s comeback hopes and cemented a 3-0 win for the Astros, smacked off the 2021 pennant – a fitting piece of symbolism that the Astros (12-11) are the reigning AL champs and the bullies of the American League West.
For the Mariners (12-11), who have made it known about their postseason expectations, finding a way to win in a building that has been brutally unkind to them in the past would be useful. The latest defeat made it 24 losses in their last 28 games at Minute Maid.
“This place,” manager Scott Servais said before exhaling deeply following his postgame media session.
Seattle got a workable start from lefty Marco Gonzales, who exited his previous outing just 11 pitches into the game after taking a line drive off his left wrist.
“It was great to get Marco back out there and I thought he pitched a really good ball game for us,” Servais said. “He made just a couple mistakes, but the fastball/changeup back and forth had them off balance. He gave us a chance to win the ballgame. But you aren’t going to win many games if you don’t score runs.”
Gonzales pitched with no pain or discomfort.
“I’ve been really thankful and been really lucky,” he said. “I haven’t had any pain and felt ready to go.”
Using a changeup-heavy approach, Gonzales pitched himself out of serious jams in the first and fifth innings, allowing just one run on a solo homer from Yordan Alvarez in the fourth inning.
“Especially here, being able to limit momentum right away early in the game and get some work with some traffic on the base paths and get out of that, I think was a huge boost,” he said.
In the sixth inning, Gonzales gave up a single to Kyle Tucker when his ground ball to the right side was misplayed by second baseman Adam Frazier on the outfield grass. Tucker was also able to advance to second on the play. With one out and Tucker on third base, Gonzales fired a 2-1 sinker to Pena that stayed on the inside half of the plate that the Astros’ rookie shortstop turned into his fifth homer of the season.
“With (Martin) Maldonado on deck, I’m definitely trying to get in and off(the plate),” Gonzales said. “It was a cutter that just kind of didn’t cut. Hat tip to him, he hit a pitch and I made a mistake. I wish I could have that one back.”
Gonzales finished the sixth inning to end his outing. He allowed the three runs on eight hits with two walks and two strikeouts. It was a quality start in a place where he hasn’t had much success. In six previous starts at Minute Maid Park, Gonzales had an 0-4 record with a 5.40 ERA, allowing 16 earned runs in 26 2/3 innings with the Astros posting a .300/.381/.482 slash line against him with 15 walks, 14 strikeouts and 13 extra-base hits allowed.
He also pitched seven innings, allowing one run on four hits with no walks and six strikeouts vs. the Astros at T-Mobile Park.
Asked if he’s found something different that is working against the Astros or if something is different, Gonzales paused for a second, smirked at the idea of mentioning the sign stealing scandal and said, “No.”
But even one run allowed would’ve been too much for Gonzales with the Mariners’ offense struggling to figure out the riddle that was Jake Odorizzi.
Indeed, the veteran right-hander tossed 6 2/3 shutout innings, allowing four hits with a walk and three strikeouts.
The Mariners faced Odorizzi on April 15 at T-Mobile Park, knocking him out of the game in the fifth inning after scoring four runs on eight hits with four walks.
But the Mariners didn’t muster much against him with just four singles.
“I would expect a little bit more consistency with where we’re at,” Servais said. “We were swinging the bat so well at home. It really hasn’t carried over into the trip the way that I’d hoped it would. But we have two big games here before we go back home. We got to turn it around and we’re capable of doing that.”Seattle’s best scoring opportunity came in the seventh inning. Jake Odorizzi issued a two-out walk to Eugenio Suarez. Astros manager Dusty Baker went to hard-throwing Ryne Stanek to end the inning. Stanek walked J.P. Crawford to bring the tying run to the plate in Julio Rodriguez.
The battle lasted just three pitches. Stanek fired a 101-mph fastball for a called strike. Rodriguez fouled off another fastball at 101. The third pitch was a nasty splitfinger fastball at 90 mph that Rodriguez swung over dropping to a knee.