The Houston Astros scored twice in the eighth inning to put the latest dagger in the hearts of the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers’ 3-2 loss on Sunday at Minute Maid Park put an exclamation point on Houston’s sudden dominance over Texas in 2014.
With the last-place Rangers clinging to a 2-1 lead in the eighth, manager Ron Washington had the game where he wanted it with his most dependable relievers available.
But in 2014, when everything that could go wrong for the Rangers has, even the usually dependable arms of Neal Cotts and Neftali Feliz couldn’t keep the Astros from taking three of four in the series and taking an 11-5 season advantage (with three games remaining).
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With one out in the eighth, Cotts’ cut fastball to Matt Dominguez on 1-0 count was deposited over the left-field wall to tie the game at 2-2.
Cotts hit the next batter, Jake Marisnick, after getting ahead in the count 0-2. Marisnick stole second and moved to third on Gregorio Petit’s groundout.
Washington then went to Feliz, who hadn’t pitched since Monday in Seattle. Feliz struggled with his command and quickly walked Robbie Grossman in front of the league’s leading hitter, Jose Altuve, who responded with his fourth hit of the game, a single to center to score Marisnick with the game-winner.
“[Marisnick] fouled off a couple good pitches, and I tried to get in there tight and got a little too far in there,” said Cotts, who is tied for the league lead with seven blown saves and has a career-high eight relief losses. “You don’t want to give free passes that late in the game, and it came back to haunt us.”
The Astros tried to add to their lead, but a perfect throw from center fielder Leonys Martin to catcher Robinson Chirinos caught Grossman trying to score on Chris Carter’s single.
The Rangers’ offense, which scored single runs in the first and sixth innings on six hits, was retired in order in the ninth.
Feliz said after the game that the days off between appearances left him less than sharp. His velocity was down and his command was off.
“When I take too many days off, my arm doesn’t feel the same,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m the same. Before the surgeries, it was the same thing.”
Washington said walking Grossman was the key.
“We shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “If you’re going to get beat right there, Grossman has got to beat you, not Altuve.”
As for Feliz’s lack of use, Washington wasn’t going to pass on his closer just to push Feliz’s days off to six.
“I thought the game was to be saved right there,” he said. “[Altuve] hits everything. Throw him breaking balls that stay inside, he pulls them. Throw him fastballs away, he goes that way. He just moved the ball around the ballpark wherever you put it.
“He’s not trying to do anything more than make good contact and he does that. That’s why he’s leading the league in hitting.”
It was Altuve’s fourth four-hit game this season and eighth of his career. He has a league-leading .336 average. He has put some room between himself and the Rangers’ Adrian Beltre, who is batting .324 after going 0 for 2 with two walks Sunday.
Texas had chances to add to its lead, including in the eighth with two runners on and one out. But Beltre struck out and Ryan Rua lined out to right. The Rangers stranded five runners in scoring position.
“You have to take advantage of those, we didn’t,” Washington said.
It was the third time starter Nick Martinez has left with a lead only to see the Rangers lose. He allowed a run on six hits in 5 1/3 innings and was replaced by Roman Mendez after a single and a walk with one out in the sixth.
Mendez got out of the mess with a popout and strikeout, but then needed his own relief after loading the bases with two outs in the seventh. Cotts came in and threw one pitch to force a flyball out.
“One of the things my dad taught me as a kid is you have to have a short-term memory when you play this game,” Martinez said. “You have to learn to forget, good or bad. Just focus on your next outing, your next at-bat and keep moving forward. Don’t dwell on the past.”
That’s good advice for Rangers fans everywhere.