HOUSTON - Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais framed his message prior to the results Tuesday, taking measures to avoiding overhyping a series against the reigning champions despite being fed a series of questions that presented an opportunity to do precisely that.
Then the Mariners (38-22) improved to a season-high 16 games over .500 with their 7-1 victory over the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park, recording their fifth consecutive win and 14th in 16 games. Seattle posted nine one-run wins during that stretch entering Tuesday, lending credence to the notion that good luck played a part in their exceptional play.
In bludgeoning the Astros, the Mariners proved they are flat-out good, no qualifications were needed, and they will attempt to sweep the two-game series on Wednesday night.
Alone in first place this late in the season for the first time since 2003, Seattle extended its lead in the American League West to two games with one game left in the series. It was a solid start to a six-game, six-day road trip, but it was just one victory, not a referendum on anything.
"I think everybody wants to place a big significance on this series; when we come back here in September I hope it's really significant," Servais said. "We have a lot of baseball left to play. We're playing really good, we've won a lot of close games, low-scoring games that seem to go in our favor because we're getting big hits late and we're executing."
Mariners left-hander Wade LeBlanc (1-0, 2.60 ERA) will start the series finale. He will make his seventh career appearance (third start) against the Astros, against whom LeBlanc owns a 5.00 ERA without recording a decision.
He has pitched in relief twice against Houston this season, allowing four runs on five hits and two walks in four innings on April 17 and 19 at Safeco Field.
LeBlanc is 1-0 with a 1.72 ERA in six starts this season and has not allowed more than two runs in any start. He last pitched in Thursday's 6-1 win over the Texas Rangers when he allowed one run on four hits in five innings.
Right-hander Lance McCullers (7-3, 3.89 ERA) gets the starting nod for Houston on Wednesday. McCullers produced arguably his best start of the season against Seattle on April 17, allowing one run on one hit with one walk and 11 strikeouts over seven innings in a 4-1 win.
He is 6-2 with a 2.75 ERA over 10 career starts against the Mariners; with his 11th appearance in the series finale, McCullers will have faced Seattle more than any other team in his career.
Including his last appearance against Seattle, McCullers has allowed two earned runs or less in seven of his last nine starts. McCullers rebounded from a sub-par outing in Cleveland by allowing two runs on four hits in six innings of Thursday's 4-2 win over the Boston Red Sox.
The Astros (37-25) were a season-high 16 games over .500 on May 25. They have been in a bit of a tailspin ever since, first posting a string of close losses marred by poor bullpen performance. Before suffering their second consecutive blowout defeat on Tuesday, the Astros' previous five losses had come by a total of seven runs.
In need of a spark, the Astros will activate outfielder Josh Reddick from the 10-day disabled list on Wednesday. Originally placed on the DL on May 21 with a staph infection in his left leg, Reddick missed his 14th game on Tuesday. Houston dropped to 7-7 with Reddick unavailable.
"Reddick will be here (Wednesday)," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We're going to option J.D. Davis to Triple-A (Fresno). That'll be effective (Wednesday). Josh did a really nice job tonight -- I think he got three hits (in his rehab assignment). He'll be playing right field (Wednesday). He'll be batting sixth."