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, another 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 well 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 hurts the situation the most is that the Mariners could’ve been out of that sixth inning without Alvarez stepping foot into the batter’s box 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 hits with a one-run lead, Pena lofted a pop fly to shallow center field. It was reminiscent of JP Crawford’s bases-loaded pop out in Toronto.
With Adam Frazier racing out of his spot and Rodriguez sprinting in on the play, the ball dropped between them. Rodriguez slowed up and didn’t dive, not wanting to crash into Frazier. And if Rodriguez dives and doesn’t make the catch, Pena has the double or triple and the tying run is in scoring position, which was the whole situation to avoid and the reason for playing deep.
And a collision between the two? The worst possible outcome.
“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 the 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. “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.”
As for the location of the pitch, Alvarez shrugged off the accomplishment.
“I was thinking if the pitch was outside, I wasn’t trying to pull the ball,” he said. “I fouled off the pitch a couple times and got under it a couple times.”
Castillo’s only major mistake was a hanging slider that Kyle Tucker hit for a solo homer in the fourth inning.
For those thinking that Castillo should have intentionally walked Alvarez in that situation, they got to see the repercussions of that in the eighth inning.
Andres Munoz, Seattle’s best reliever, walked Pena with two outs and manager Scott Servais decided to intentionally walk Alvarez and take his chances with Alex Bregman.
Bregman, who hit a two-run homer off Munoz on Tuesday, smoked a line drive single to right to score Pena.
That insurance run loomed large in the ninth with the Mariners
While much will be debated about Alvarez hurting them, Seattle still only scored two runs.
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 — although 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 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 and was eventually tagged out.
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 Eugenio Suarez swinging, Valdez walked Haniger on five pitches, throwing four consecutive balls. His outing ended when Carlos Santana doubled into the right-center gap, putting runners on second and third.
Eschewing the cursory numbers that say switch-hitting catcher Cal Raleigh is more accomplished from the left-side of the plate, Astros manager Dusty Baker went to right-hander Hector Neris.
In his first at-bat of the game from the left side, 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.
This story will be updated.