For the second time in as many games, the Houston Astros found themselves embroiled in a ninth-inning dustup linked to pitching inside. And as it did the first time, it cost them a high-leverage reliever.

Astros closer Ryan Pressly was ejected for pitching inside to Kansas City Royals outfielder Michael A. Taylor following an umpire warning in the finale of a three-game series on Sunday, a 7-4 win for Houston. Then on Monday, Houston reliever Hector Neris was ejected after throwing over the head of Seattle third baseman Eugenio Suarez as the Mariners won the series opener 7-4.

On Tuesday, in the middle game of the three-game set, the Astros will send Justin Verlander to the mound. He will be opposed by fellow right-hander Chris Flexen.

Monday’s ninth-inning fireworks were ignited when Neris plunked Seattle first baseman Ty France with two outs, the bases empty and the Mariners leading 5-4. Both dugouts and bullpens subsequently emptied, and a screaming match led to the ejections of Mariners manager Scott Servais and Astros first base coach Omar Lopez.

Four pitches later, Julio Rodriguez homered to right field off Neris, padding the lead. J.P. Crawford drew a walk on five pitches, and then the first pitch to Suarez went over his head.

“(Neris) certainly wasn’t trying to throw at (France) and hit him,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was ejected along with Neris. “I think (France) might be leading the league in getting hit. You’ve got to pitch them inside.”

France leads the majors with 12 hit-by-pitches.

The seeds of Monday’s scenario were planted when the Astros voiced displeasure with having two of their players hit by pitches on Sunday, fueling an assumption that Neris pitched tight to France and Suarez with malicious intent.

“The other pitch over the head looked bad, but that wasn’t intentional either,” Baker said. “In a one-run game … if you pitch inside and it’s close to the batter, there’s really not much room. It snowballed into bad events for us.”

Verlander (6-2, 2.23 ERA) is winless over his past two starts, including a 6-1 road loss to the Mariners on May 27, when he allowed six runs on 10 hits in six innings. The hits and runs were season highs for Verlander, who was 6-0 in the seven starts prior to the defeat in Seattle.

In his latest start, Verlander had a no-hitter through six innings but gave up three runs in the seventh before the Astros scored four in the top of the ninth in a 5-4 road win over the Oakland A’s on Wednesday.

Verlander is 18-10 with a 3.26 ERA over 34 career starts against the Mariners.

Flexen (2-6, 4.55 ERA) earned his second victory of the season on May 27, when he limited the Astros to one run on seven hits over seven innings. He walked two and struck out six as the Mariners won 6-1.

It was his eighth start of seven innings and no more than one run allowed since the start of 2021, the most in the American League in that span.

Flexen is 1-5 with a 5.26 ERA over seven career starts against the Astros, including a 1-2 record and 2.50 ERA in three starts vs. Houston this season.

Controversy aside, Seattle opened the final leg of its nine-game road trip by continuing the momentum from series wins in Baltimore and Texas.

The Mariners have won three consecutive series, a stretch that started in Seattle against the Astros.

“It’s a good win,” Servais said of the Monday victory. “We’ve struggled in this ballpark (4-26 over the previous 30 games at Minute Maid Park). We came in here wanting to win the series, and we’re off to a good start.”

–Field Level Media