M's win in Houston, hell dips below freezing

The Mariners hadn't won a  game in Houston since 2018, but the pulled one out today. Barely. By the skin of their teeth.

Things started out well enough, and even got to be comfortable for a spell. Manager Scott Servais seemed to be trying something new—paying attention and paying smart. That came later, though, and then it went away. But early on, the M's got a little bit lucky with Kyle Lewis legging out an infield hit with two outs in the first.

That let the other Kyle, Seager, continue his determined effort to prove he is not, emphatically NOT, his virtual-season avatar by creaming a double to the wall to give Seattle a lead. Seager had a great day, also getting aboard via walk and being hit by a pitch, and one of his two outs was a screaming meanie caught by the first baseman. Fork you, virtual-season game, the real Kyle Seager will not be silenced (or traded to Philadelphia).

Up 4-1 after 3½ innings, Yusei Kikuchi began to fall apart a bit, but we can chalk that up to insufficient preseason ramp-ups for pitchers (more on that here). Houston loaded the bases on a walk, single, walk, then another single for a run. Kikuchi then got two huge strikeouts, but another walk and another single and the Mariners' lead was gone and Servais went to the bullpen. Properly, for once, timing-wise. One batter later than I would have, but still. Only, he brought in Zac Grotz again. Now, there's a type of situation to use Mr. Grotz, and it is not when you're trying to put out a fire, but Servais got away with it here as after he beaned his first batter, Grotz got out of trouble with a foulout.

The Grotz mistake out of the way, Servais proceeded to actually do the right thing with his ’pen—brought in Matt Magill for an inning, Carl Edwards for an inning, Dan Altavilla for an inning, and Anthony Misiewicz for an inning. Good. They all held the line, keeping a potent lineup quiet, for the most part. Edwards was especially good; after his first man, Josh Reddick, tripled, Edwards took care of business, striking out Maldonado, popping Springer up, and taking down José Altuve, of all batters, on strikes with just three pitches.

Then came the eighth, when we saw something unusual from the Mariners: smart offense. Tim Lopes singled to lead it off (nice game for Lopes, by the way, picking up where he left off last season). Mallex Smith then tried to bunt him over, but ended up striking out on a tough changeup from Chris Devenski; since that didn't work, Lopes stole second base. He got a good read on Devenski's move and timed it well. Austin Nola—pinch-hitting, another good move—drew a walk anyway, but the steal put extra weight on Devenski's mind and he absolutely grooved one on a tee to Shed Long, which Long lined hard to right field and now we've got a tie game. J.P. Crawford failed to move up Long, so Long stole second base. Pretty easily, too. And then I saw something unexpected from Kyle Lewis.

In his late-season callup last year and in spring training and in the first couple of games in 2020, Lewis has done two things with some frequency—hit homers and strike out—without showing much aptitude for anything else. That, along with his overall minor-league history, suggested to me that he wasn't ready for prime time, he needed to learn some plate discipline with some experience at Triple-A (a level he skipped entirely). But in this at-bat, he impressed the heck out of me. He took the first two pitches for strikes, which wasn't the surprise; but down 0-2 he seemed to go to work. Took the obvious go-fish pitch for ball 1; fouled off a really tough breaking ball; took a tough fastball that he had to know was a strike, but the home-plate umpire had been calling it a ball all day and he knew that too and got the consistent call for ball 2; and then just went with a borderline outside pitch with a short punch-and-judy swing and drove in two runs easy as you please. Smart, disciplined. What do you know!

It was looking good going to the bottom of the ninth, but you know Scott Servais—it's not a real game for him until he makes a pitching move that backfires, so with a two-run lead he went to Taylor Williams to close it out. This wasn't the bad move, though. The bad move was having no one backing Williams up. Taylor Williams had a big-league ERA of nearly 10 last year and even in Triple-A, despite a good ERA there, had issues with baserunners, and watching him today I see why. He's got basically two pitches, a fastball that doesn't go where he aims it and a fantastic slider that can paint the outside corner to a right-handed batter or drift into the happy zone of most left-handed batters. So: left-hand-batting Kyle Tucker blasts that freewheeling fastball to the wall for a double. Tying run to the plate, no bullpen action. He goes 1-2 on George Springer with two sliders and a fastball, then misses with his nasty slider and absolutely grooves one down the middle that somehow—somehow—Springer swings over. By all rights Swinger should have pummeled that one for a game-tying longball, but Williams got away with it. One out. Now Altuve's up, one of the best hitters in the game, and Williams goes 3-2 by missing with three sliders. It looks like the tying run will be walked aboard, but damned if Williams doesn't land that last slider at just the right spot for Altuve to have to foul it off and he gets the swinging strike three. OK, breathe a sigh of relief, but then Mickey Brantley, a lefty, comes up. You can guess what happens here, Brantley looks at a few errant fastballs and waits on that slider to the happy zone, which he crushes for an RBI double. Now the winning run comes to the plate and there has been zero activity in the bullpen all this time. For cryin' out loud, you're absurdly carrying eleven relievers, remember? Argh. Well, it's only Alex Bregman at bat, not like it's someone good. Oh, wait. Well, it goes full on Bregman. It's pitch number 30(!) for Williams now, and everyone knows what it's going to be: slider breaking to the low-outside corner. Luckily, Bregman mistimes it and swings over it to end the game, but holy moly, you aren't going to get away with that again, certainly not against an offense as good as Houston's.

My takeaway from the ninth inning is that Scott Servais' objective was not to win the game but to audition Taylor Williams and let the chips fall. Thirty pitches for a one-inning save. That's Heathcliff Slocumb territory. Hopefully, the tryout was useful for Servais and he learned something (though really that's what spring training/preseason is supposed to be for). I learned that Taylor Williams has one good pitch to right-handers and not much else.

So some good stuff and some scary stuff out of the M's today, and hey, they're now guaranteed to have a better season performance against the Astros than they had last year. So that's something.

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