The one man in Astros silks nobody wants to face in the bottom of the ninth with men on base stepped in with two out in the bottom of the ninth in Minute Maid Park Tuesday afternoon. This lefthanded swinger had first and second and one out. He had a lefthanded pitcher to face on the mound.
It didn’t matter to Yordan Alvarez. But it came to matter phenomenally to the Mariners, who came into the half inning having seen an early 7-3 lead cut down to 7-5. And it came to matter even more to Robbie Ray, the defending Cy Young Award winner who usually starts but was brought in now for the lefty-lefty gambit.
First, Alvarez fouled off a sinker that arrived a little outside and just under the middle of the plate. Then, Ray threw him a second sinker, just under the middle of the plate but a little inside. In other words, right into one of Alvarez’s wheelhouse spots.
The two-out mushroom cloud from the warhead that won American League division series Game One for the Astros spread its umbrella over all Texas, half of Oklahoma, and maybe a third of the Gulf of Mexico. The Mariners might have sung a sailor’s lament, but the Astros probably thought it was the sweetest nuke box music this side of heaven.
We fear no team, the Mariners all but said entering this set, after a regular season surprise of finishing second to the Astros in the American League West, then sweeping the Blue Jays out in a wild card series. They may fear no team, but they wouldn’t be the only ones to determine a little fear of Alvarez might be gentler upon their health. Short and long term.
Mariners manager Scott Servais had no reason to fear Ray faltering against a lefthanded hitter, since he kept them to a .212/.260/.347 slash line and a .647 OPS on the regular season. When his ninth-inning man Paul Sewald got a quick ground out to open but plunked rookie pinch-hitter David Hensley on a full count, then struck Jose Altuve out before Jeremy Peña singled, Servais went to the percentages.
He wasn’t going to let his righthander who’d already been bopped for the two-run homer by Alex Bregman that pulled the Astros back to within a pair an inning earlier stick around to incur further disaster. But as the mushroom cloud dissipated, the skipper was left to shake it off, remind himself it’s a best-of-five, and wait till Game Two for vengeance.
Servais may have forgotten the percentage that might have reminded him Alvarez is almost as deadly against lefthanded pitching as he is against righthanded pitching. He might have hit 17 more home runs against the starboard side, but his OPS against the port side is a deadly enough .947, and his on-base percentage is eight points higher.
Not to mention his Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances) against the port side (.651) is only 62 points lower than against the starboard—and would be a career year for a lot of batters no matter what side.
The data tells you what’s been. It only suggests what might be. But Alvarez’s data suggestion should have alerted Servais that, as tenacious a competitor as Ray is—and this was only the seventh relief appearance of Ray’s major league career—there was at least a 50-50 chance that Ray confronting Alvarez might not end well for his team.
Alvarez also started the Houston scoring with a two-run double in the third, cutting the early 4-0 Seattle lead exactly in half. Only nobody’s going to remember that cruise missile as vividly as they’re going to remember that ninth-inning hydrogen bomb.
He didn’t just nuke the Mariners at Game One’s eleventh hour. He bombed his way into the history books. He’s only the second man in postseason history—after Kirk Gibson (Game One, 1988 World Series)—to walk it off with a home run when his team was down to their final out of the game. It was also the first postseason game-ending bomb hit with the bombardier’s team in a multiple-run deficit.
Alvarez also reminded the Mariners it’s not wise to assume that getting the early drop on a future Hall of Famer means it’s going to finish in their favour. The Mariners thumped Justin Verlander—who’d pitched a comeback season that has him in the Cy Young Award conversation—for six runs on ten hits in the first four innings, including a two-run double by Julio Rodríguez in the second and a solo blast by J.P. Crawford in the fourth.
Verlander’s final four batters faced, in fact, hit for the reverse cycle: Crawford’s homer plus Rodríguez’s immediate triple, Ty France’s immediate RBI double, and Eugenio Suárez’s single—that might have been an RBI job itself but for France being thrown out at the plate.
Yuli Gurriel cut another Mariners lead in half with his fourth inning solo launch, leaving the score 6-3, before Eugenio Suárez made it 7-3 with his own solo but Bregman—with Alvarez aboard on a one-out single— took hold of a Sewald sinker that didn’t sink quite far enough down and sent it over the left center field fence in the bottom of the eighth.
One inning later, Alvarez trained his bomb sight, pushed the button, and put a finish to one of the Astros’ more dubious streaks: until Tuesday, they’d been 0-48 in postseason play when they entered the ninth trailling by two runs or more.
It didn’t necessarily have to take the most monstrous home run hit in Minute Maid Park since now-retired, Hall of Famer-in-waiting Albert Pujols’s ICBM in the 2005 National League Championship Series. (The ancient days, before the Astros were the team to be named later in the deal making a National League franchise out of the Brewers.)
But it didn’t exactly hurt, unless you wore a Mariners uniform. And in that moment the number on Alvarez’s Astros uniform looked huge considering a little piece of baseball history involving that number. 44.