HOUSTON — The second inning of their season opener Friday night gave the Mariners an encouraging glimpse of their future.
Rookie outfielder Kyle Lewis, who slugged his way through summer camp the past three weeks, crushing four home runs against teammates in intrasquad games, struck again in Houston.
But, this time it was in a game that counted, and against reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander.
There was no doubt Lewis was eyeing his first homer of the season when he turned on a fastball Verlander left up. The resulting bat crack echoed across the emptiness of Minute Maid Park.
As Lewis coolly rounded the bases, his teammates hollered in the background, providing the only true cheering in a ballpark lacking its usual thousands of fans. The ball landed beyond the left field wall some 438 feet later.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said during a video call with reporters postgame. “He’s got a great head on his shoulders. Great to see him hit the ball like he did.
“That was a bomb.”
The first of many Seattle hopes to see this season from Lewis, one of the earliest arrivals of this burgeoning rebuild.
Lewis’ first homer of the season — and seventh in his first 19 games in the big leagues, dating back to September — was another intriguing sign of what Seattle baseball could be in the years ahead.
“You always wonder when you’re going to get your first hit of the year, so to get that out of the way in my first at-bat was really cool,” Lewis said.
But, the moment, exciting as it was, was fleeting, and the innings that followed provided something of a cruel reminder that the idealistic future hasn’t quite arrived yet.
With the youngest Opening Day roster of any team in the majors this season, Seattle still lacks meaningful experience, and the miscues, however small, add up when opposing the defending AL champions.
The Mariners managed just five hits against the Astros in their season opener — never in the same inning — their pitchers served up 10 to Houston’s formidable lineup, and some fielding mistakes in pivotal moments cost them as they stumbled to an 8-2 loss.
“Speed of the game and understanding where we’re at in the game — those are all experiences you just have to go through at the major league level,” Servais said. “Certainly the Astros have a quality club, and you’ve got to make the plays when they’re out there.
“And we will. There’s no question. We have a much better defensive team than we had last year. It will show up throughout the entire season. It’s just one of those nights.”
Seattle has now lost 14 consecutive games to its AL West rival, dating back to last year, when the Mariners went just 1-18 against the Astros. They haven’t won in Minute Maid Park since 2018.
Lewis’ knock early on briefly offered the idea that the Mariners might finally snap some unpleasant streaks, but Houston was quick to answer.
Following a pair of scoreless innings from Seattle ace Marco Gonzales, Josh Reddick led off the third with a double, and scored on a Martin Maldonado line drive two batters later to even the game at 1-1.
Kyle Seager smashed a solo home run to right in the fourth off Verlander to give Seattle its final lead of the game.
It didn’t last long. Everything unraveled for the Mariners in the five-run fifth. Gonzales allowed a leadoff single to Aledmys Diaz. Seager then handled a hard-hit grounder from Martin Maldonado, and made a throw to second from his knees, but it glanced off Shed Long Jr.’s glove.
Instead of a possible double play, Gonzales was suddenly staring at two on with no outs. He forced a grounder from George Springer, but Jose Altuve outran a ground ball to J.P. Crawford at short for an infield single that scored the tying run.
“Against a club like the Astros — 27 outs, no more,” Servais said. “That’s (infielders coach) Perry Hill’s motto, and we gave them a few too many outs tonight.”
By that point Gonzales, who was making his second consecutive Opening Day start for Seattle, reached his pitch limit at 73 and, visibly frustrated, was pulled.
“I feel like I created a little bit of a mess out there, so obviously the competitor inside of me wants to finish out that inning and keep us close in that game,” Gonzales said.
“That’s just me. That’s who I am. Pitch … limit or not, I want to go out and give us the best chance to win.”
Zac Grotz replaced him midway through the fifth, and the Astros broke the game open. Alex Bregman immediately hit a run-scoring single, and Michael Brantley crushed a three-run homer to make it 6-2.
Gonzales (0-1) was charged with the loss, but was mostly sharp, and seemed to deserve better than the four runs — three earned — on five hits he ended up with in 4 1/3 innings. He walked one and struck out two.
Mariners relievers Anthony Misiewicz and Carl Edwards Jr. each gave up another run in their innings of work in the sixth and seventh. Rule 5 Draft pickup Yohan Ramirez, who pitched the eighth, was the only Seattle pitcher who finished with a clean sheet, striking out two.
It wasn’t the most satisfying of endings in a shortened 60-game season when every result is meaningful, and the Mariners have the difficult task of navigating building up a young team while also playing under the new and odd circumstances the COVID-19 pandemic has caused — no fans, masked coaches and some masked players, and hand-sanitizing at every turn.
“It’s hard to explain,” Servais said about the atmosphere in Houston on Friday night. “I think it’s something none of us ever imagined would ever happen, and we’re dealing with it the best we can. Just a different vibe, obviously, and it starts in batting practice when you walk out, you’re on the road, and we’re playing a team that was in the World Series last year, and there’s nobody there, and it’s just crazy.
“Just a different feel. You get a big hit in the game, or even when you’re on the road and those guys make a big play or get a bit hit, it’s just quiet. It’s just different. It’s something we’ll get used to.
“But, early on and really throughout the entire game, I thought our guys were really into it. We have a lot of young players with a lot to prove, so we will play with some emotion. It was great to hear guys chirping and getting on the umpire and getting on each other a little bit. It was all good, but it was definitely a unique experience.”
PLUS: Mariners first baseman Evan White, who signed an unprecedented six-year deal with the club this offseason without ever having played a big league game, recorded the first hit of his career in the ninth, when he legged out a grounder to third.
MINUS: Seattle managed just five hits against the Astros in the season opener, and none came in the same inning. In addition to homers from the two Kyles and base hit from White, Long recorded his first hit of the season and catcher Austin Nola doubled.
STAT PACK: Seager’s homer in the fourth was No. 199 of his career. The 382-foot shot to right was his fifth career home run off Verlander. He is now 11-for-39 all-time against Verlander with three doubles, the five homers and 11 RBI.
QUOTABLE: Mariners coaches and players wore black T-shirts ahead of Friday’s game with “Black Lives Matter” written across the front, and knelt in unity on the field with the Astros after lineups were announced to continue to raise awareness for the movement and fight against racial injustice. Several Mariners also raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem.
“It meant a lot, just to be a team with so many African-American players, and be able to represent that community as well,” Lewis said. “We were able to come together and just show unity with the whole team, too.
“I appreciate all of the teammates and everybody coming together and just showing unity. It really means a lot to everybody in that clubhouse.”
SHORT HOPS: Seattle set a club record for most major league debuts on Opening Day with four. Misiewicz, Ramirez, White and left fielder Jose Marmolejos each appeared in a big league game for the first time. … At 438 feet, Lewis’ home run was the longest off Verlander since 2017 and had an exit velocity of 110.9 mph.
ON DECK: The Mariners continue their four-game series against the Astros at 1:10 p.m. Saturday at Minute Maid Park. Former first-round draft pick Taijuan Walker, who returned to the Mariners this year and is looking to reboot his career after Tommy John surgery, is scheduled to make his first start opposite Lance McCullers Jr.