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OAK@HOU: McHugh retires 19 straight batters in win

Right-hander Collin McHugh, who has been outstanding in his first two starts for the Astros, gets a return engagement with the Mariners on Sunday as the two American League West clubs conclude a three-game series at Minute Maid Park.

The Mariners will counter with Brandon Maurer, who is still seeking his first win and has yet to go longer than 4 1/3 innings in two starts after returning from a back injury that sidelined him much of the spring.

The 26-year-old McHugh picked up his first Major League win against Seattle on April 22 when he filled in for injured starter Scott Feldman and threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts.

McHugh followed that up with 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball on two hits in a 5-1 win over the A's, making him 2-0 with a 0.59 ERA and five hits, three walks and 19 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings.

That's pretty impressive results for a pitcher who came to the Astros with an 0-8 record and 8.94 ERA in 15 appearances (nine starts) with the Mets and Rockies the previous two seasons and manager Bo Porter has responded by keeping him in the rotation.

"He's definitely made a strong case for himself," 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.

"You look at his two starts and it's been arguably our two best starts this year. When you factor in losing Scott Feldman, for Collin to come in and give us the boost he's given us is absolutely tremendous."

McHugh is one of three Astros pitchers to win his first two starts while allowing one run or fewer and three hits or fewer, joining Roger Clemens and Feldman, who is expected back next week.

Maurer has a far less successful history against the Astros, having gone 0-2 with a 27.00 ERA in two starts last year against Houston at Safeco Field. Maurer lasted just two-thirds of an inning while surrendering seven hits and six runs in his second career start on April 9 against the 'Stros, then was knocked out after three frames while allowing seven hits and five runs in a Sept. 11 outing.

The 6-foot-5 Maurer has thrown well in his first two outings this year before running out of gas against Texas and Miami as he works to build up his pitch count, but manager Lloyd McClendon said he should be ready to go deeper into games now.

"I thought he threw the ball extremely well early, fatigued again and started to get the ball up a little bit," McClendon said of Maurer's last start, when he lasted just 3 2/3 innings against the Rangers in a game Seattle came back to win, 6-5. "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."

Mariners: Almonte replaced in center field

McClendon has been very supportive of Abraham Almonte as his leadoff hitter and center fielder through a rough first month, but the skipper benched the 24-year-old on Saturday after he went 0-for-3 and committed two errors in the outfield.

Michael Saunders started his third straight game in the leadoff role on Saturday and figures to play there again Sunday against the right-handed McHugh. Saunders had a go-ahead, two-run double during Seattle's eight-run seventh inning in Saturday's 9-8 victory.

Almonte is hitting just .198 and one of his errors Friday led to an unearned run in a 5-4, 11-inning loss.

"That's why he's sitting, because it's not working," McClendon said. "It's that simple. I don't try to sugarcoat anything. He's not playing because he's not producing. He's not playing up to his capabilities. I said earlier, 'There's one of two ways you can do it. You can play 'em or you can bench 'em.'"

Astros: Springer will be back in lineup Sunday

Highly touted rookie outfielder George Springer got his first day off Saturday after starting 15 straight games since getting called up from Triple-A Oklahoma City on April 16, but will be back in the lineup for Sunday's series finale, according to Porter.

Springer struck out four times in a 1-for-6 night Friday, but drove in the game-winning run with an infield single in the 11th in a 5-4 victory. The youngster is hitting .180, but he'll continue getting his chance to produce in the middle of the Astros' order.

"It's just a breather," Porter said Saturday. "He's played every day since he's been here. I started thinking about it midway through the game yesterday. Sometimes we have to protect them from themselves. And I think it's a good day for him to take a step back, relax a little bit, look at the game from a different perspective and get back in there tomorrow and be ready to go."

Worth noting

• McHugh is the third Astros pitcher to win his first two games with Houston while racking up 19 or more strikeouts. J.R. Richard (1971) and Randy Johnson ('98) both went 2-0 with 20 strikeouts.

• Hisashi Iwakuma became the eighth Mariners starter in their first 28 games when he threw Saturday against the Astros. He joins Felix Hernandez, Roenis Elias, Erasmo Ramirez, Chris Young, James Paxton, Blake Beavan and Maurer. Only the White Sox have used more starters this year with nine, while Seattle and Texas are tied for second with eight.

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