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HOU@SEA: Morales' homer puts Mariners on the board

SEATTLE -- The transition from the bullpen back to starting pitcher did not go as planned for Brandon Maurer. The rookie, making his first Major League start since May, lasted about as long as a reliever, allowing five runs in just three innings as the Astros beat the Mariners, 6-1, to complete a three-game series sweep.

Maurer was brilliant in the first inning, striking out the first two batters he faced. But the Astros would slap seven hits over the next two innings, including three doubles, to chase the newly minted starter from the game.

"He came out so strong, and he had a great fastball, secondary stuff was good, he's dropping the curveball in there," manager Eric Wedge said. "We knew we couldn't take him too far because he hadn't started in a while, but we were expecting to try and take him further than he did, but he had to work so hard those first three innings that was enough."

The 23-year-old Maurer was the story of Spring Training, leap-frogging Triple-A to make the club's Opening Day starting rotation five years after the Mariners made him their 23rd-round pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. But the 6-foot-5 righty struggled, and he was sent to Tacoma, only to be recalled July 27 to supplement the Seattle bullpen.

With fellow rookie Taijuan Walker shut down for the season to preserve his 21-year-old throwing arm, the Mariners are giving Maurer another shot at a starting gig.

"It's something he's dealt with before when he gets into trouble, just not being able to get into trouble, and it dominoes on him," Wedge said. "He's a young pitcher with a great arm, great stuff, works hard; he's in good shape, so I just think he's going to have to understand and continue to learn to be the same guy when things aren't quite going his way as when things are going his way."

Kendrys Morales put Seattle on the board in the fourth inning, hitting a 412-foot home run to dead center field. The shot gave Morales 21 home runs on the season and 100 for his career. He nearly added a 101st in the sixth inning on a flyout to right field that fell just short of the wall.

Morales -- who will be a free agent this offseason if the Mariners do not extend a qualifying offer of roughly $14 million -- has homered in four of the team's last eight games, hitting .323 in that span.

Hoping to end the season on a high note, the Mariners (65-81) have instead limped to a 3-8 record in September. While Houston (50-96) has struggled as many expected, the Astros have won three series against Seattle, including two at Safeco.

"You come into a series and you want to win the series, and you put yourself in a position to win the first two games and having an opportunity to sweep," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "I felt like the guys responded well."

Seattle has now been swept at home three times in the last two and a half weeks. With rookies starting at shortstop, second base and catcher, Wedge acknowledged that fatigue may be setting in for the younger players, who have never faced the grind of a season that extends to September. Outfielder Raul Ibanez, however, was not buying that as an excuse.

"You know, I'm of the mentality fatigue is our troops that are fighting in Afghanistan and haven't slept in three days and are dodging bullets," Ibanez said. "Fatigue is part of the game, so you keep fighting through it, and you make it happen."

Seattle's relievers ably backed their former bullpen-mate, digging in to pitch five scoreless innings. The Mariners relievers allowed four hits -- and a ninth-inning run -- while striking out seven batters.

In particular, the play of Tom Wilhelmsen was a good omen for a Seattle team that is struggling to find them. The 29-year-old reliever walked Matt Dominguez to lead off the sixth but struck out the side to strand the runner.

Wilhelmsen -- whose 24 saves rank 11th in the American League -- struggled over the summer, losing his grip on the closer's job and eventually necessitating a demotion to Tacoma. Since being recalled, the righty has pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings.

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