SEATTLE – With each failed plate appearance and squandered scoring opportunity, particularly when only one run would have stopped the eventual marathon of pitches, outs, stranded runners and scoreless innings, the Mariners were allowing the potent bats of the Astros’ top hitters, held silent for longer than reasonably expected, opportunity after opportunity to crush their victory hopes and extinguish their World Series dreams.
The moment came a little over 6 hours after the first pitch was thrown Saturday afternoon at T-Mobile Park.
Leading off the 18th inning – no, that’s not a typo, the 18th inning – Jeremy Pena, the Astros’ talented rookie shortstop, smashed a 3-2 fastball from Mariners reliever Penn Murfee over the wall in deep left-center . The solo homer was the first run produced by either team in what had been a scoreless standoff.
As Pena’s teammates celebrated inside and outside the third-base dugout, a sellout crowd of 47,690 that hadn’t stopped yelling or screaming or standing for much of the game was silenced.
The dream of another day of baseball in this magical Mariners season seemed dead even after Murfee and Robbie Ray, yes, Robbie Ray, kept the damage to just that one run.
But after being held scoreless for the first 17 innings, mustering only seven hits and striking out 22 times, seemingly hoping to pop a home run from the bottom of the ninth until the end, the Mariners made it 18 without a run when Julio Rodriguez flied out to center field for the final out.
So much of their season-ending 1-0 loss in Game 3 of the American League Division Series was indicative of their season – the good and bad.
“Some kind of pitching performance on both sides,” manager Scott Servais said. “Offense was hard to come by, obviously – hits, base runners, anything.”
But when they got to the bottom of the ninth with the score 0-0, and with each inning they held the Astros scoreless thereafter, Servais knew ending it was necessary and extending it was a flirtation with defeat.
“When you start working through that meat of the lineup that they have over there, and certainly with (Yordan) Alvarez and (Alex) Bregman having very good series against us, and you get through it, you think, ‘OK, now is our shot. We got to take advantage of it,’ ” Servais said. “But we weren’t able to get anything going offensively.”
The pitching staffs combined to strike out 42 batters, a postseason record, with four combined walks.
“We kept putting the zeros up there and they kept putting the zeros up there, and you think we’re going to be able to break through because we have so many times,” Servais said. “It’s kind of what we’re accustomed to, playing those tight games and finding a way. We just weren’t able to put anything together.”
The Mariners got brilliant starting pitching from George Kirby and exceptional bullpen work from every arm available. But the inability to produce any sort of offense – big hits and or homers – was their ultimate downfall.
“We could have obviously played a little better and we could have hit a little better,” Mitch Haniger said. “But that’s a really good ballclub over there. Hats off to our pitching staff, they’ve been great, but we’ve got to put up runs on the board. We didn’t capitalize on so many opportunities.”
The Mariners stood on the rail of their dugout and watched the Astros celebrate a series sweep while the fans tried to offer condolences with “Let’s Go Mariners!” chants. It didn’t heal any pain, knowing they had three winnable games against their bitter rivals and failed to close out any of them.
This one will sting weeks into the offseason.
“A lot of negative emotions,” Haniger said. “I felt like we were right there and we didn’t get the job done. Just a real sour taste in our mouth. But I think I think that’s a really good team over there. But I know. We know that we’re right there with them and we think we can beat them. Obviously, we didn’t. I felt like we were right there with them all series.”
Making his first postseason start, unfazed by the raucous crowd filling every inhabitable spot, indifferent to the pressure of keeping his team’s postseason alive and unafraid of the Astros lineup, Kirby, the baby-faced right-hander, delivered the brilliant outing that his team so desperately needed.
Kirby pitched seven shutout innings, allowing six hits with no walks and five strikeouts.
His last pitch of the game came with two outs in the seventh inning and runners first and second. Facing the always dangerous Jose Altuve and the crowd on its feet clapping and cheering in anticipation, Kirby reared back and ripped a 98-mph four-seam fastball to home plate.
He wanted the pitch up in the zone. But it was probably at Altuve’s eyes. The diminutive leadoff batter, who hasn’t sniffed a hit in this series, flailed at it unsuccessfully. As the crowd exploded in cheers, Kirby stared down Altuve and screamed in delight.
But the Mariners provided no run support for him. Facing veteran right-hander Lance McCullers, who is postseason tested, the Mariners couldn’t find a way to produce a run or much of a threat at one.
Throwing his slider more than half the time and rarely throwing his sinking fastball, McCullers tossed six scoreless innings, allowing two hits with two walks and seven strikeouts.
The Mariners put just three balls in play with exit velocities over 95 mph off McCullers, which are considered hard hits. All three were outs.
The Mariners’ best chance to score off McCullers came when he issued back-to-back walks to Cal Raleigh and Haniger to start the second inning. But Carlos Santana and Adam Frazier flew out and McCullers struck out Jarred Kelenic to end the inning.
With two outs in the eighth inning, Rodriguez, who had struck out in three at-bats off McCullers, got to face old teammate Rafael Montero. It was Montero at the end of July who hit Rodriguez in the hand and sent him to the injured list.
In this meeting, Rodriguez injured the baseball, smashing a line drive to left field that hit off the wall. It was about a foot short of being a home run. Rodriguez hustled into second base for a double. But he stood there and watched as Ty France struck out swinging to end the inning.
Had their moment passed?
It looked like the Astros might get them again in the eighth when Diego Castillo gave up a leadoff single, hit the next batter and allowed a sac bunt to move the two runners into scoring position.
The Mariners called on rookie Matt Brash to clean up the mess. Excitable and sped-up in his previous outing in Houston, Brash struck out Christian Vazquez and then made Altuve look helpless, needing just three pitches for three weak swings to set him down and end the inning and keep the game at 0-0.
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