Mariners, Astros battle for AL West supremacy

HOUSTON — In the span of nine days, the Houston Astros transitioned from the hottest team in the American League to second place in the AL West behind a rival riding a crest of momentum.

In Seattle on Sunday, the Mariners (37-22) recorded their 13th victory in 16 games bolstered by an effective and surprisingly lengthy performance from right-hander Felix Hernandez, who worked eight innings for the first time in nearly two years in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

It marked the Mariners’ ninth one-run victory during their scorching hot streak, one that catapulted Seattle past the suddenly slumping Astros (37-24) and into first place as Houston sets to host a brief two-game set between the teams starting on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.

The Mariners’ success in one-run games extends beyond their torrid play of late. Behind closer Edwin Diaz and his league-leading 21 saves, Seattle is 18-9 in one-run games and has established a belief that something will unfold positively if things are tight in the later innings.

“They know,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said when asked if his players need to be reminded of their late-game magic. “The way that you get those things to happen is you hang in the game, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.

“It’s like our crowd knows if we just hang in there something will happen. They feel it coming.”

The Mariners will have ace James Paxton (4-1, 3.13 ERA) on the mound for the series opener. Paxton has excelled against Houston in his career, going 4-3 with a 3.16 ERA over nine starts. He defeated the Astros 2-1 on April 16 in Seattle, allowing one run on three hits and three walks with seven strikeouts over six innings in the Mariners’ lone win in four meetings with Houston.

The Astros have dropped 6 of 9 following a 13-3 run that pushed them a season-high 16 games over .500. They will counter with left-hander Dallas Keuchel (3-7, 3.65 ERA) on Tuesday.

Keuchel is 8-6 with a 2.67 ERA over 16 career appearances (15 starts) against the Mariners. He took the loss opposite Paxton at Safeco Field despite tossing a complete game while allowing two runs on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts. He defeated Seattle three times in 2017.

The Astros haven’t enjoyed the same luck as Seattle in one-run games, going 4-12 thus far. That record, combined with the Astros’ 16-2 mark in blowouts (games decided by five-plus runs), explains in part why Houston leads the majors in run differential (plus-122) by a wide margin yet owns just the fifth-best record. According to the Pythagorean W-L metric, the Astros should have a 12-game lead over Seattle.

“I choose reality more than I would choose Pythagorean,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “They don’t credit us the wins that we’re supposed to have or the wins they think we should have or the wins they shouldn’t have. They show me the standings and say this is where we are.

“I believe 162 games will reveal exactly who you are or what you’ve had to deal with and how well you’ve played. You can have hot stretches; you’re afforded a cold stretch or two. After 162 you pretty much know where you’re supposed to be.”