(SportsNetwork.com) - The Seattle Mariners take aim at their fifth win in six outings, as they conclude a three-game series against the American League West-rival Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on Sunday.
Justin Smoak crushed a two-run homer during an eight-run seventh inning to help the Mariners hold on to defeat Houston, 9-8, in the middle part of the series on Saturday. Seattle led 9-2, before sustaining a late rally effort by Houston.
Star pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma returned from the disabled list to make his season debut for Seattle on Saturday and the offense provided the Japanese import with its highest run total since scoring 10 runs in Anaheim on Opening Day. Michael Saunders and Robinson Cano accounted for two RBI apiece for the Mariners, who played the final three innings without manager Lloyd McClendon after he was ejected.
McClendon benched outfielder Abraham Almonte on Saturday. Almonte has just four hits in his last 37 at-bats. Third baseman Kyle Seager is hitting .394 over his last eight games, while Cano continues to lead the way with a .288 average on the campaign.
The Mariners will send Brandon Maurer to the mound as they attempt to win their third series in a row. Maurer has struggled since returning from a back injury that restricted him during spring training. In two starts, the 23-year- old righty has totaled only eight innings. Maurer gave up five runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings to the Rangers in his most recent appearance.
"I thought he threw the ball extremely well early, fatigued again and started to get the ball up a little bit," McClendon said. "We probably pushed him a little bit because of the circumstances and he's given us the very best he can give us under the circumstances. I'm proud of the way the young man has gone about his business."
Houston will counter with Collin McHugh, who has been fantastic in his brief time with the club. The 26-year-old right-hander picked up his first career win on April 22 by holding Seattle to just three hits and striking out 12 in 6 2/3 innings of action. He followed that performance with another gem, holding Oakland to just one run on two hits while finishing just one out shy of a complete game. McHugh joined the Astros with an 0-8 record and 8.94 ERA in 15 appearances, including nine starts, with the Mets and Rockies the previous two seasons.
"He's definitely made a strong case for himself," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "He's earned his keep. If he continues to take the ball and give us what he has so far, he's not going to do anything to change our thought process."
Houston's offense did its part in Saturday's setback. Chris Carter and Jonathan Villar both homered, while Marwin Gonzalez had three hits in as many at-bats. Carter, who is batting just .169 on the season, also produced his first triple of the season and a pair of RBI.
Carter is not the only player in Houston's lineup having difficulty at the plate in the early season. Second baseman Jose Altuve is leading the team with a .290 batting average and no other every day player is hitting above the .260 mark. The Astros could certainly use a more consistent effort from Carter, Dexter Fowler and Matt Dominguez, as they are ranked 29th in the MLB with a .216 team batting average and average only 3.4 runs per game.
Rookie outfielder George Springer, who rested after hitting the game-winning single in the 11th inning of Friday's win, will be back in the mix for Houston in the rubber match.
Houston has defeated Seattle in three of five meetings this year.