HOUSTON – The Mariners’ best pitcher, and one of the most dominant pitchers in the early stages of this postseason, stood on the mound ready for another battle with his team leading by a run in the sixth inning and the tying run on first base.
The Astros’ best hitter, and one of the most dominant hitters in baseball all season, stood in the box – looming larger than his listed 6-5, 225 pounds – ready to crush the hopes and dreams of the postseason neophytes trying to invade on their American League dynasty.
Given what transpired on Tuesday night and the deliciously dramatic nature of postseason baseball, a meeting between Luis Castillo and Yordan Alvarez with the game’s outcome in the balance just had to happen.
With the same expression he carried for the previous five innings, including after retiring Alvarez twice on a weak ground out and shallow pop out, Castillo seemed unaware of the 47,774 standing and roaring in anticipation.
Alvarez, who showed in the first two failed at-bats that he had no interest in taking a walk, was ready to hit – anything, anywhere.
Castillo fired a first-pitch 98-mph sinker about five inches off the plate that Alvarez fouled off. Knowing he didn’t need to throw a strike to get Alvarez to swing, Castillo didn’t. He threw another 98-mph sinker away. But this pitch was about an inch closer to the plate than the previous one, and that’s all Alvarez needed.
He launched a line drive into the short porch known as the Crawford Boxes for the go-ahead two-run homer, delivering another soul-crushing punch to the Mariners in an eventual 4-2 loss to the Astros.
“I thought our whole club, really the last couple games here, has competed as good as you can,” manager Scott Servais said. “We left it all out there. Unfortunately, Yordan put a swing on a ball that is a ball and took it out of the park. There’s not a whole lot you can do about that one. “
Gutted by two straight losses due to Alvarez’s late-inning heroics, the Mariners must now recover and try to avoid elimination in Game 3 on Saturday.
“We’re going to come back Saturday with some vengeance and we’ll be ready to go,” said catcher Cal Raleigh. “We’re going to get it done Saturday and get another one Sunday and bring it back here for Game 5.”
A sold-out and frenzied crowd is expected to be at T-Mobile Park for the first postseason game since 2001.
“I do know how hard it is to win on the road and it will be very hard for them to win in Seattle,” Servais said. “I will tell you that because I know what it’s going to be like when our crowd gets going.”
Perhaps what hurt most is that the Mariners could’ve been out of that sixth inning without facing Alvarez by retiring Jeremy Pena, whose presence on base in front of Alvarez has been just as much of an issue.
With Julio Rodriguez playing a little deeper than usual, not wanting to allow any extra-base hit with a one-run lead, Pena lofted a pop fly to shallow center field. It was reminiscent of JP Crawford’s bases-loaded pop fly in Toronto.
Adam Frazier retreated quickly toward it from his spot at second base and Rodriguez sprinted in on the play. But the ball dropped in between them. Rodriguez slowed up and didn’t dive, not wanting to crash into Frazier. And if Rodriguez does dive and doesn’t make the catch, Pena has a double or triple and the tying run is in scoring position.
“Just a tough play,” Rodriguez said. “Whenever you’ve got two guys running straight at each other with a ball in the middle, I’m not happy that ball dropped but I’m happy no type of injury happened. We all saw what happened in Toronto. “
It allowed Alvarez to play the hero once again.
“He was having a great game,” Alvarez said of Castillo. “He’s a great pitcher. But I faced him twice earlier in the game and just went up there, just trying to look for a good pitch to make good contact on. “
Castillo wasn’t going to pitch around him. He was looking to get him out for a third straight at-bat.
“Against any batter, I always go with the same mindset, ‘If you’re good, I’m good too,’” he said through interpreter Freddy Llanos. “I came with the same plan of just getting him out and he was able to make contact with that ball.”
Castillo’s final line: seven innings pitched, three runs allowed on five hits with no walks and seven strikeouts. His only major mistake pitch was a hanging slider that Kyle Tucker hit for a solo homer in the second inning for an early 1-0 lead.
For those with the thinking that Castillo should’ve intentionally walked Alvarez in that situation, they got to see the repercussions of that strategy in the eighth inning.
Andres Munoz, Seattle’s best reliever this season, walked Pena with two outs. Servais decided to intentionally walk Alvarez and take his chances with Alex Bregman.
Bregman, who hit a two-run homer off Munoz on Tuesday, ambushed a 101-mph fastball on the first pitch, lining a single into right field to score Pena for a two-run lead.
While much will be debated about Alvarez hurting them, Seattle still only scored two runs despite having five hits and seven walks. The Mariners were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine base runners. They are 18-57 this season when scoring three runs or fewer.
The Mariners picked up their only two runs off Astros starter Framber Valdez in the fourth inning.
After walking Eugenio Suarez with one out and getting noticeably irritated at home plate umpire Janson Visconti for not calling two pitches strikes – though they were balls – Valdez seemed to lose his focus and rhythm.
He fell behind Mitch Haniger and left a 3-1 fastball in the middle that was turned into a double down the line.
With runners on second and third, Carlos Santana hit a slow bouncer in between the mound and the third-base line. Valdez hustled off the mound and fired wildly to home. The ball got past catcher Martin Maldonado, allowing Suarez to score.
However, the ball hit so hard off the backstop, it rolled right back to Maldonado. Santana, who expected to take second on the error, got caught in a run down.
Dylan Moore made up for the miscue, dumping a single on the first pitch he saw from Valdez into right field to score Haniger and give Seattle a 2-1 lead.
But it was all Seattle would get against him. Valdez came back with a 1-2-3 fifth inning and worked into the sixth.
After getting Ty France to ground out to short and striking out Suarez swinging, Valdez walked Haniger on five pitches, throwing four consecutive balls. His outing di lui ended when Santana doubled into the right-center gap, putting runners on second and third.
Eschewing the cursory numbers that say switch-hitting catcher Raleigh is a more accomplished from the left-side of the plate, Astros manager Dusty Baker went to right-hander Hector Neris.
Raleigh grounded out softly to the right side of the field to end the inning.
Valdez pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs (one earned) on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts.