HOUSTON — The Mariners’ top pitcher and one of the most dominant pitchers early this postseason stood on the mound, poised for another battle with his team, who led by a run in the sixth inning and the tie at first base.
The Astros’ top hitter and one of baseball’s most dominant hitters all season stood in the box — weighing in excess of his listed 6-5, 225 pounds — ready to shatter the hopes and dreams of post-season neophytes who try to invade their American League dynasty.
Given what was transpiring Tuesday night and the gloriously dramatic nature of postseason baseball, a game-lost meeting between Luis Castillo and Jordan Alvarez had to happen.
Sporting the same expression he’d worn for the last five innings, including after twice knocking Alvarez out on a weak ground-out and a flat pop-out, Castillo seemed oblivious to the 47,774 who stood and roared 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 150 mph sinker on the first pitch about five inches from the plate, which fouled Alvarez. Castillo knew he didn’t have to throw a punch to make Alvarez bat. He threw away another 98-mile sinker. But that pitch was about an inch closer to the record than the previous one, and that was all Alvarez needed.
He launched a line drive into the short porch known as the Crawford Boxes for the two-run go-ahead homer, and dealt another soul-crushing blow to the Mariners in an eventual 4-2 loss to the Astros.
“I thought our whole club, really the last few games here, have been fighting as best they can,” said manager Scott Servais. “We left everything out there. Unfortunately, Jordan took a ball that’s a ball out of the park with one swing. There’s not much you can do about that.”
After back-to-back losses on Alvarez’s late inning heroics, the Mariners now need to recover and try to avoid elimination in Saturday’s Game 3.
“We’ll come back on Saturday with some revenge and ready to go,” said catcher Cal Raleigh. “We’re going to finish it on Saturday and get another Sunday and bring it back here for Game 5.”
A sold-out and frenzied crowd is expected at T-Mobile Park for the first postseason game since 2001.
“I know how difficult it is to win on the street and it will be very difficult for them to win in Seattle,” Servais said. “I’m telling you this because I know what it’s going to be like when our crowd gets going.”
Perhaps what hurt most is that the Mariners could have gotten out of that sixth inning without confronting Alvarez by retiring Jeremy Pena, whose presence on base in front of Alvarez was just as much of an issue.
While Julio Rodriguez played a little deeper than usual and didn’t want to allow an extra base hit with a one-run lead, Pena lofted a pop fly into flat midfield. It was reminiscent of JP Crawford’s base-loaded Pop Fly in Toronto.
Adam Frazier quickly retired from his spot at second base and Rodriguez sprinted into the game. But the ball fell between them. Rodriguez slowed and didn’t dive because he didn’t want to crash into Frazier. And if Rodriguez dives and doesn’t make the catch, Pena has a double or triple and the tieing run is in goal position.
“Just a tough game,” said Rodriguez. “Whenever two guys run straight into each other with a ball in the middle, I’m not happy that the ball fell off, but I’m glad no kind of injury happened. We all saw what happened in Toronto.”
It allowed Alvarez to once again play the hero.
“He made a great game,” Alvarez said of Castillo. “He’s a great pitcher. But I ran into him twice early in the game and just went there looking for a good spot to make good contact.
Castillo wouldn’t fight over him. He wanted to get him out for a third straight shot.
“I always approach any racquet with the same attitude: ‘If you’re good, I’m good,'” he said through interpreter Freddy Llanos. “I came up with the same plan of just getting him out and he was able to make contact with that ball.”
Castillo’s last line: seven innings pitched, three carries allowed with five hits without walks and seven strikeouts. His only big mistake was a hanging slider that Kyle Tucker hit for a solo homer in the second inning to take an early 1-0 lead.
For those who think Castillo Alvarez should have walked out on purpose in that situation, they could see the effects of that strategy in the eighth inning.
Andres Munoz, Seattle’s best helper this season, went past Pena with two outs. Servais decided to lead Alvarez on purpose and take his chances with Alex Bregman.
Bregman, who hit a two-run homer ahead of Munoz on Tuesday, ambushed a 101-mph fastball in first place and lined a single into right field to put Pena for a two-run lead.
While there is much debate about Alvarez injuring her, Seattle still only managed two runs despite five hits and seven walks. The Mariners were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and nine baserunners stranded. They’re 18-57 this season if they score three runs or fewer.
The Mariners caught up their only two runs from Astros starter Framber Valdez in the fourth inning.
After leading Eugenio Suarez with an out and getting noticeably irritated with home plate umpire Janson Visconti for not calling two pitches strikes — even though they were balls — Valdez seemed to lose his focus and rhythm.
He fell behind Mitch Haniger, leaving a 3-1 fastball down center that converted into a double down the line.
With runners in second and third, Carlos Santana hits a slow bouncer between the mound and the third baseline. Valdez rushed off the hill and fired wildly home. The ball went past catcher Martin Maldonado and Suarez was able to score.
However, the ball hits the backstop so hard that it rolls right back to Maldonado. Santana, expecting to finish second due to the error, went into a rundown.
Dylan Moore made up for the mistake by throwing a single into right field on the first pitch he saw from Valdez to hit Haniger and put Seattle 2-1 up.
But that was all Seattle would get against him. Valdez came back with a 1-2-3 fifth inning and worked his way into the sixth.
After tricking Ty France into coming short and hitting Suarez with a swing, Valdez led Haniger five fields and threw four straight balls. His outing ended when Santana doubled into the right-center gap, putting the runners in second and third.
Astros manager Dusty Baker eschewed the elusive numbers saying Raleigh, who hits the switch, is better from the left side of the plate and went to right-hander Hector Neris.
Raleigh landed softly on the right side of the field to end the inning.
Valdez threw 5 2/3 innings and allowed two carries (one earned) on four hits with three walks and six strikeouts.
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