Here was an opportunity Saturday for the Mariners. And an opportunity lost.
With a chance to pull back to within two games in the American League wild-card race, the Mariners instead saw their attack turtle helplessly, again, in a 2-1 loss to the Houston Astros at Safeco Field.
"I think we’re trying too hard," center fielder Leonys Martin said. "They’ve had a good plan. Pitching backward. We’ve got to make adjustments."
The Mariners averted a second straight shutout on Seth Smith’s RBI double in the eighth inning against reliever Luke Gregerson. That momentarily roused the crowd of 32,304.
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But the Mariners left the tying run at second when Robinson Cano struck out, and Nelson Cruz popped to short. They also remained three games behind Baltimore and Toronto, which both lost, back in the wild-card chase.
There are 14 games remaining.
"Our guys are a little anxious," manager Scott Servais said. "I think you can see it. We’ve got to do a better job. It kind of goes back to what we’ve talked about, our mantra, controlling the zone.
"We haven’t done that that last couple of nights."
Losing to the Astros is one thing. It’s long been a tough matchup for the Mariners. Houston has now won eight of the last nine games between the two clubs and holds a 10-5 edge in the season series.
But who saw this coming?
Some numbers: The Mariners, prior to Friday, had scored 89 runs in 13 games this month — an average of 6.8 runs a game. That average led all 30 clubs.
The Astros’ rotation, over the same period, had compiled a 7.17 ERA, which matched Arizona for the worst mark (both had allowed 47 earned runs in 59 innings).
So what happens?
Houston starter Mike Fiers (11-7) yielded just three hits Saturday in six shutout innings before departing. One day earlier, Collin McHugh gave up two hits in seven shutout innings.
Saturday was worse.
Felix Hernandez stumbled through a poor effort Friday in a 6-0 loss, but James Paxton on Saturday retired the first 15 Astros before Teoscar Hernandez opened the sixth inning with a single back through the middle.
Tyler White followed with a sharp grounder just fair past third base for a double. The Mariners shortened their infield and got what they wanted when the runners had to hold on Jake Marisnick’s grounder to third.
Paxton had a chance to escape unharmed when he struck out George Springer, but Yuli Gurriel grounded a two-run single through the left side.
That was all Houston got. And all it needed.
"I think I just left a couple of balls over the middle too much in that inning," Paxton said. "The pitch that Gurriel hit, I maybe left it a little more over the middle than I wanted. It still got in on him, but he just found a hole."
Paxton (4-7) gave up two runs and four hits in seven innings. He had one walk (it was intentional) and struck out seven. It wasn’t good enough.
"Man, he was dominant," Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "He was upper 90s. Really good breaking ball. It started out in the zone, we would go below the zone. He was hard to hit.
"At one point you get a little nervous when you get to the middle part of the game and we hadn’t had a baserunner."
The Mariners got two singles in the first inning, but Fiers picked off Nori Aoki after the first one. Aoki had a two-out double in the third inning, but nothing came from that.
Fiers retired eight in a row before Aoki reached again, with a one-out walk, in the sixth inning. That, too, came to nothing when Smith grounded out, and Cano popped out.
"Fiers’ breaking ball was really good," shortstop Ketel Marte said. "He mixed that in with the high fastball and kept us off-balance. He did a great job today."
Houston reliever Chris Devenski gave up two singles in the seventh inning but stranded both runners by striking out Mike Zunino. After Gregerson wobbled through the eighth, Ken Giles worked a one-two-three ninth.
"They’re pitching backwards a little bit," Servais said. "Fastball counts, they’re slowing it down. We’re aggressive. We’re juiced up. We want to make something happen. You have to slow yourself down in those spots."
Opportunities are slipping away.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Right fielder Seth Smith made a fine running catch into the right-field corner on a slicing drive by Marwin Gonzalez for the final out in the second inning.
PLUS: Nori Aoki reached base in all four plate appearances with three hits and a walk….Seth Smith had a single and a double in four at-bats…relievers Evan Scribner and Nick Vincent each kept the game close by pitching one scoreless inning.
MINUS: Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz were each hitless in four at-bats. Cano left three runners on base. Cruz left two…Mike Zunino struck out in all three at-bats…Dae-Ho Lee was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts…Nori Aoki got picked off first base after a leadoff single in the first inning. Seth Smith followed with a single, but the Mariners failed to score.
STAT PACK: The Astros’ season-best scoreless streak ended at 17 innings when Seth Smith produced the Mariners’ only run with an RBI double in the eighth inning.
QUOTABLE: It appears James Paxton might have solved his latest problem with the nail on his middle finger. He threw 99 pitches and reported no problems.
"The finger felt good," he said. "(The nail) stayed on well. No issues there."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners