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Astros sweep M's with elite pitching

The Mariners' hot start ran into a cold shower this weekend. The Houston Astros rolled into town and outslugged and outpitched the M's to a three-game sweep and dropped the Mariners' record to 13-5.

So, what does this mean? Is this the end of the fun part of the year? Have the Astros revealed the Mariners' unlikely early-season brilliance as a mirage, and the preseason predictions of futility will now materialize? Or was this just a hiccup along the road?

Might be a little of both. Friday night's game, which Houston took by a final score of 10-6, was another example of the opposition benefiting from Seattle manager Scott Servais' lack of sense when it comes to handling the bullpen and the lack of experience in the bullpen itself. With Seattle ahead 3-2 in the fifth inning, starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc pulled a muscle in his side and had to come out of the game. Servais went to Shawn Armstrong, freshly activated off the injured list for his season debut. This was not a bad move, and indeed Armstrong got through the inning without damage. But in the sixth, Armstrong was immediately in trouble, and by the point it was obvious to many a change needed to be made, no one was ready in the bullpen so José Altuve was able to crush an Armstrong meatball for a grand slam homer and put Houston ahead. For the seventh, Servais went to just-promoted rookie R.J. Alaniz, who pitched around two singles for a nice inning in his Major League debut, but left him in for the eighth, counter to the typical Servais practice of one-and-done for short relievers. The Astros scored four more on another grand slam home run.

The bullpen was a known issue for the M's and will continue to be a problem, but it's exacerbated by Servais' handling of in-game moves. Once the game starts, determining when a pitcher should be replaced and by whom is basically the only thing an American League manager needs to do when his team carries no bench to speak of and a ridiculous complement of eight relievers. Unfortunately, this is Servais' weakest skill. To be fair, in this particular case the 'pen had been used heavily in prior games and letting the new additions go longer than usual may have been to spare the others excessive work, but that doesn't wash when you think about who was out there that had not been used much in the previous series in Kansas City. It may have been more that Servais had no confidence in those pitchers rather than concerned for their workload, or he simply didn't think the situation called for another pitcher. Regardless, he got caught with his proverbial pants down again when it came to his relievers and, though it may well be that Houston would have won anyway (they are the Astros, after all), he didn't do the M's any favors along the way.

Saturday and Sunday, however, were simply a matter of being overmatched by two of the best pitchers in the Majors and solid relievers behind them. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole are both elite ace-type hurlers that any team has a hard time against, and each struck out 11 Mariner batters in their respective six-inning efforts. That they each only lasted six innings is partly due to the M's new trademark plate discipline, pushing the pitch counts and making the starters work harder to get them out, but sadly even when bouncing Verlander or Cole, the Astros' bullpen is stocked with talent. Overall, Seattle played well against Houston in both games, with Felix Hernández and Marco Gonzales limiting the intimidating Astro lineup to three and two runs, respectively, solidly keeping the M's close and with a chance to win. The team played errorless ball behind them and the only reliever to see trouble was Brandon Brennan, a solid choice for the moment who had yet to allow a run this season until Houston bench jockey Aledmys Díaz connected for a solo homer.

So, beginning of the end? No, not yet. Seeing the Mariners' starters hold their own against this lineup in all three games and the bullpen do well more often than not—and the not part was aided and abetted by Servais—is encouraging. Seeing the offense flounder against Verlander and Cole is disappointing, but really, even the best teams get crushed by elite pitchers now and again.

Unless you're the 2001 M's, the rule applies: you're going to win 54 games and you're going to lose 54 games. It's what you do with the other 54 games that counts. Two out of these three games were in the second category, only one in the third. Don't write these Mariners off yet.

That said, the next challenge comes in immediately with Trevor Bauer and the Cleveland Indians. Let's see if the bats can bounce back tomorrow as the M's and all of baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Night.

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