HOUSTON – When the two-seam fastball left his hand, Robbie Ray knew trouble was ahead. The pitch was leaking back to the middle of the plate in the worst possible way.
When the ball exploded off the bat of Yordan Alvarez and most of the 47,165 in Minute Maid Park roared in anticipation, Ray was already walking toward the Mariners dugout with his head down in disgust.
There was no need to watch the baseball turn into a vapor trail. He knew the result – a three-run walk-off homer. The only questions remaining were how far it would go and how much damage it would do to his team as the Mariners tried to move forward in the American League Division Series following one of the most crushing defeats in franchise history.
As Alvarez circled the bases and his teammates awaited at home plate to celebrate their 8-7 come-from-behind victory, Mariners players walked off the field in disgust knowing they’d just given away a chance to rewrite their history against their AL West rivals in a building that has caused so much frustration, disappointment and now heartache.
Instead, another chapter of failure against the Astros will be written with a storyline so unexpected.
“It’s a tough one,” M’s manager Scott Servais said. “But as I talked early about it, and our team about it, it’s like a heavyweight fight. You’re going to get punched.”
It felt like a gut punch, but it wasn’t a knockout. Seattle will have a day to recover before Thursday’s Game 2 with Luis Castillo on the mound and Framber Valdez getting the nod for Houston.
“This sucks,” shortstop J.P. Crawford said in a quiet voice. “But either you sit and think about it and dwell on the past or you move on from it and learn from it and have a better Game 2.”
How did it get to the point with Ray standing on the mound against a team that essentially owned him this season with the game on the line?
Like anything with Servais, this wasn’t just a gut feeling or a whim. It was a decision borne out of discussion, data and debate. The Mariners plan and then plan again for possibilities and success rates. They opted for Ray and his power stuff over lefty Matthew Boyd and right-hander Erik Swanson, who had struggled late in the season.
“Going into the series with where we were at, looking at our rotation, where we were going to head, and talking with Robbie about using him out of the bullpen as a bullet, so to speak, for that type of scenario, bringing in the lefty to face Alvarez,” Servais said. “We talked about it coming into the series. We talked about it pregame today. I looked at it in the seventh inning and said, ‘Hey, this could happen.’ ”
It happened because the normally stingy Mariners bullpen, including two of its best relievers this season, allowed base runners and runs, putting them in the late-inning drama.
In the eighth inning with the Mariners leading 7-3, Andres Munoz allowed a single to Alvarez and a two-run homer to his personal nemesis, Alex Bregman.
Servais called on Paul Sewald to start the ninth with the two-run lead. After retiring the first batter , he fell behind and then hit pinch-hitter David Hensley to allow the tying run to come to the plate.
Sewald came back to strike out Jose Altuve for the second out and was one strike away from ending the game after getting up 0-2 on rookie Jeremy Pena. But that out didn’t come for Sewald. Pena golfed a single to center to bring Alvarez, one of the most dangerous left-handed hitters in baseball, to the plate as the winning run.
Servais turned to Ray, the Mariners’ big free-agent acquisition, this past offseason, to face Alvarez and get that final out to pull off a Game 1 victory.
“That was the plan going in,” Servais said. “At the end of the day, you have that plan, but we’ve still got to execute it.”
There will be fans who will find fault in the plan, given the players involved.
Ray was beaten up by the Astros so much this season, to the point of wondering whether he would make a start in this series.
In three starts vs. Houston, he’d allowed 14 runs on 23 hits in 10⅔ innings, while the Astros racked up a .442/.509/.865 slash line with four doubles, six homers, seven walks and seven strikeouts in 59 plate appearance against him this season.
Now he was on the mound in just the seventh relief appearance of his career, facing Alvarez, who represented the winning run, with runners on first and second and a sold-out crowd on its feet.
In a season in which he will garner some top-10 votes for American League MVP, Alvarez had 369 plate appearances vs. right-handed pitchers, posting a .299/.404/.627 slash line with 16 doubles, 27 homers and 64 RBIs. In 93 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitchers, Alvarez had a .321/.412/.586 slash line with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 33 RBIs.
Really, there’s no great option to face him.
In 15 regular-season games vs. Seattle this season, Alvarez had a .327/.438/.654 slash line with 17 hits in 64 plate with two doubles, five homers, 13 RBIs, 11 walks and eight strikeouts. He already had a two-run double off starter Logan Gilbert in the game.
“I was ready,” Ray said. “I was fine. I felt good in the bullpen.”
Alvarez was right on a first-pitch sinker from Ray, fouling it back. Instead of going to a slider, Ray went with the same pitch, but it went to a worse spot, and Alvarez crushed it.
“I was just trying to get the sinker in on him,” Ray said. “It just didn’t get there.”
It got to the seats in hurry. The line drive had a 117 mph exit velocity – the third highest in any postseason game in the Statcast era – and traveled 438 feet.
The homer also crushed a magical performance where the Mariners scored six runs on 10 hits off Astros ace Justin Verlander, knocking him out after four innings.
In the first inning, he walked Julio Rodriguez and gave up a hard single to Ty France to put runners on first and third with no outs. After striking out Eugenio Suarez looking, Cal Raleigh singled into right field to score Rodriguez and give the Mariners a 1-0 lead.
While Seattle failed to add more runs in the inning, the air of invulnerability surrounding Verlander had dissipated.
When the top of the second came to an end, the Mariners had made Verlander look mortal. New postseason hero Adam Frazier led off with a single, and Jarred Kelenic followed with another through the shift. Instead of bunting the runners into scoring position, J.P. Crawford hit a deep fly ball to center, which allowed both runners to alertly tag up and advance a base.
With first base open, Verlander didn’t elevate a 1-2 fastball quite enough to Rodriguez. The rookie hammered the pitch into the gap in right-center for a two-run double and a 3-0 lead.
France notched his second of three hits off Verlander, lacing a single up the middle to score Rodriguez and make it 4-0.
Gilbert gave the Mariners a solid outing, allowing three runs over 5⅓ innings.