The valiant but vanquished Mariners

Jeremy Peña

The Mariners fought the Astros off long and luminously in their ALDS Game Three, but Astros rookie Jeremy Peña brought the fight near to the end with his eighteen-inning, scoreless tie-breaking bomb that proved the end of the Mariners’ season.

Maybe nobody really expected the Mariners to get to their first postseason since the wake of the 9/11 atrocities in the first place. Maybe nobody really expected them to stay there when they up and bumped the Blue Jays to one side in a wild card series.

But they did.

Maybe nobody expected them to survive against the American League West ogres from Houston. Even if they made a reasonable enough-all-things-considered 7-12 showing against them on the regular season. Even if they’d beaten the Astros two out of three in two first-half sets.

They didn’t.

But a three-game sweep out of their division series still stings, no matter how valiant the Mariners effort was. Even if the series was as close as a closed clothespin, the Mariners compelling the Astros to win the first two games by comeback.

Mariners fans and just about everyone else couldn’t possibly have been surprised that Yordan Alvarez was the bombardier who flattened the Mariners in Games One and Two, first with that jolting three-run homer to turn a 7-5 lead into an 8-7 Game One win in the bottom of the ninth, then with a just-as-jolting two-run homer in the Game Two bottom of the sixth.

But going long distance two games’ worth in Game Three to see it end via Astro rookie Jeremy Peña’s leadoff bomb off Penn Murfee, after Luis (Rock-a-Bye) Garcia held them at bay over four relief innings with only one measurable threat against him, had to sting soul deep.

After a marathon exhibition of run prevention—the 42 combined strikeouts (20 by Astro batters, 22 by Mariners batters) set a postseason record; the Astros going 11-for-63 and the Mariners going 7-for-60 all night, it couldn’t feel otherwise.

“It’s kind of what we’re accustomed to, playing those tight games and finding a way,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais postgame Saturday night. “I mean, that is a big league game, with the pitching and defense that was fired out there. We just weren’t able to put anything together.”

“This at-bat,” Pena said, after his homer broke the foot-thick ice at last, “was not going to be possible if our pitching staff didn’t keep us in the ballgame. They dominated all game. Their pitching staff dominated all game.”

Sometimes you had to think what was wrong with these Astros—if they were going to prevail anyway against the Seattle upstarts, how the hell could they not have just done it in the regulation nine? Didn’t they want to avoid wheeling Justin Verlander to the mound in a Game Four if they could help it?

Now, of course, Verlander and Framber Valdez can have a little extra rest/rejuvenate time before opening the Astros’ unprecedented-in-the-divisional-play-era sixth consecutive American League Championship Series. They won’t know their opponent until things are settled between the Guardians and the Yankees in New York Monday night.

But how could these Astros, whose stocks in trade include becoming the biggest pains in the ass in the AL West with runners in scoring position, do worse with RISP (0-for-11) than the Mariners (0-for-8) did all night long?

How could Kyle Tucker and Jose Altuve hitting back-to-back one-out singles and pulling off a double-steal in the top of the second end with Mariners starting pitcher George Kirby striking Chas McCormick out to strand them?

How could Kirby plunk two Astros in the top of the third—Alvarez leading off, Trey Mancini to set up ducks on the pond—and escape with his life after McCormick’s deep fly to center was run down and hauled down by Julio Rodríguez?

How could the Astros plant first and second on Kirby with one out in the top of the seventh—and strand them by way of Christian Vazquez flying out to center and Altuve striking out?

How did Mariners reliever (and erstwhile Rays bullpen bull) Diego Castillo slither out of second and third and one out in the top of the ninth by striking Vazquez and Altuve out back-to-back swinging?

How did six Mariners out of the bullpen keep the Astros hitless from the tenth through the fifteenth, with their only baserunner of the span coming when Paul Sewald plunked McCormick to open the the top of the twelfth?

And how did Murfee save Matthew Boyd’s bones midway through the top of the sixteenth, after Boyd surrendered a base hit (Alex Bregman) and a walk (Kyle Tucker) following a leadoff fly out? Murfee got Yuli Gurriel to line out to fairly deep right center and Aledmys Diaz to pop out beyond first base in foul ground.

The longer this one went, the more improbably it continued to look. And not one muscle in T-Mobile Park dared obey any Mariner fans’ thoughts of making for the exits.

The Mariners proved just as good at leaving runners for dead as the Astros until the eighteenth. They stranded Cal Raleigh on third in the second, Ty France on first in the third, J.P. Crawford on first in the fifth, Rodríguez on second (a two-out double) in the eighth, Eugenio Suarez (leadoff single) and Mitch Haniger (one-out plunk) in the ninth, France (two-out walk, then stealing second) on second in the thirteenth, Haniger on first in the fourteenth, and Carlos Santana (two-out single; to second on a wild pitch) on second in the seventeenth.

This game threatened to end as a classic case of long-term, non-constructive abandonment against both side. (For the first time in his major league life Altuve took an 0-for-8 collar, big enough to fit Secretariat.) It only began with Astros starter Lance McCullers, Jr. pitching two-hit, six-inning shutout ball, and Mariners rook Kirby plus his defense keeping the Astros at bay for seven innings despite six hits and five walks.

Raleigh, the Mariners catcher, played all eighteen innings with a thumb fracture and a torn ligament or two that he’s dealth with for over a month. Some call it toughness. Others might call it foolishness.

He had a Clete Boyer kind of regular season at the plate: 27 home runs (leading all Show catchers) plus 20 doubles but a .284 on-base percentage. He clinched the Mariners’ postseason trip in the first place with a game-winning home run; he scored what proved the game-winning run that pushed the Blue Jays out of the postseason.

The league-average Mariners backstop who handled his pitchers well enough to help them deliver a collective 3.30 ERA on the season struck out three times in six plate appearances Saturday night, batted only once with a man in scoring position, in the bottom of the ninth, and hit into a force out.

At last Raleigh will be able to visit a hand specialist and get that paw repaired. Who knows what further damage catching two games’ worth without a break might have done? The spirit may be willing but more often than not all or part of the body can be defiant. Which reminds me that Rodríguez’s late-season back injury needs to be pondered more thoroughly, too—did he feel lingering after-effects the rest of the way?

But Peña turned on Murfee’s full-count fastball almost down the central pipe and sent it over the left center field fence and turned all eyes upon him. Peña, the rookie who slotted in at shortstop for the departed Carlos Correa. And, earned no less than his manager Dusty Baker’s lasting respect.

“You could tell by his brightness in his eyes and his alertness on the field,” Baker said postgame, “that he wasn’t scared and he wasn’t fazed by this. Boy, he’s been a godsend to us, especially since we lost Carlos, because this could have been a disastrous situation had he not performed the way he has.”

It proved a disastrous situation for the Mariners in the end. They’re likely to remain competitive with a few patches to sew and gaps to fill during their off-season. But nobody can accuse them of going down without one of the grandest and longest fights in postseason history, either. Be proud, Seattle. There was honour to spare in this defeat.

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