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Astros gobsmack Mariners with crushing 8-7 walkoff

Someone get Mike Cameron’s sage dealer on the phone

Robbie Ray pitches in Game 1 of the ALDS
The pitch that launched a thousand takes
Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I want to cut Robbie Ray and Scott Servais a break. Bear with me.

Robbie first. He threw a bad pitch to Yordan Álvarez. Okay, a very bad pitch. And Álvarez hit that pitch at 117 miles per hour into the upper deck to win the game for Houston with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, after Houston had trailed since the top of the first. But here’s why I want to cut Robbie a little bit of a break:

Yordan Álvarez’s Statcast Data

This is a very tough assignment under any circumstances, let alone for your first relief appearance in years. If you were watching, you were holding your breath precisely because Álvarez is so good. The result is utterly painful, but it’s not like he game up this home run to David Fletcher.

Now Scott. The reason I want to cut him a break is not because I think going to Robbie Ray was a good move. (I was begging them to go to Swanson for the ninth.) I’m cutting him a break because if you think the entire front office didn’t spend two days talking about what to do in that situation, you’re 30 years behind. Day to day, sure, the manager decides who pitches when, as informed by a broader group. And this year, Servais’s decisions have been excellent.

But to bring in a lefty starter to face Álvarez in a tight spot in the playoffs? In 2022, this isn’t the manager’s call. This isn’t like a normal bullpen call where the manager goes with what’s in his gut, as informed by the rest of the staff. The buck stops with the President of Baseball Operations, but this kind of decision is made by consensus with a lot of people weighing in. So I don’t want to cut Scott a break by defending the decision itself, just to suggest that we should spread the blame around a little.

That’s my take on Ray and Servais, but I won’t try to stop you from going buck wild. Second-guessing decisions like this and yelling about players who screw up in big spots? That’s as important a baseball tradition as the seventh-inning stretch. I wish you well in your ranting and raving. Truly. (Just, you know, be nice to each other.)

Manager Scott Servais calls for a pitching change Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Having gotten that out of the way, there were 53 other outs to talk about. But I’m going to limit it to a couple key points because if you want a blow-by-blow of a game that ended like that, well, not to kink shame, but I don’t think that level of masochism is healthy.

The Mariners got to Justin Verlander

A fact that’s gotten a bit lost in blowing the lead is that the Mariners had a lead to blow. Three of the first four batters got hits off Verlander, resulting in a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. They kept the pressure on in the second, piling four more hits together to take a 4-0 lead. The key to the Mariners’ success today was laying off four-seamers up out of the zone. When Verlander ate them for lunch on July 23, the pattern was getting them chasing high heat (left) and then stealing strikes with his breaking balls once a hitter was on his back foot (right).

Today was a totally different story. See all of Verlander’s pitches today on the left, and the Mariners’ whiffs on the right.

Laying off the high heat made all the difference. The at-bat that would have defined the game if not for Álvarez came from J.P. Crawford. Verlander looked like he was settling in after retiring the M’s in order in the third and then getting Adam Frazier and Jarred Kelenic to strikeout in the fourth. That brought up J.P. Crawford, who smartly laid off more tempting fastballs, getting himself into a 3-0 count, took a pitch all the way to make it 3-1, and then deposited a ball into the right field seats, turning them into the real Crawford Boxes.

That kept the pressure on Verlander and turned the lineup over. Julio, France, and Eugenio followed up with a triple, double, and single. So Verlander was knocked out after four innings with the score 5-3. That gets J.P. Crawford today’s Sun Hat Award for notable individual contribution. (This is also a make-up prize for what happened later in the game when J.P. was robbed of a walk on a 3-2 count in one of the only missed calls of the game—the same at-bat where he fouled a ball off the plate that bounced back to hit him right in the Crawford Boxes. Tough AB.)

Logan Gilbert looked very good

The other reason the Mariners had a lead to blow was that Logan Gilbert kept the Astros to just three runs over 5.1 innings. That’s about as good as it gets against an offense as good as the Astros in a park as silly as the Juice Box. Logan really had his curveball working today, getting seven whiffs with it on just 16 swings. If this series gets to a Game Four, I’ll feel very good about Logan getting the ball.

There were other highlights too, like a home run from Eugenio and a Paul Sewald meltdown, but the indelible memory of this game will be when the old lady dropped it into the ocean at the end. They would have looked like geniuses if it had worked.

Looking ahead, we could take heart from the fact that the Mariners got to Verlander and that Logan Gilbert looked so good. But I’m having a hard time not having that make me feel worse. The Mariners have so little margin for error in the playoffs, and showing well only goes so far. Winning this game with Castillo going next before taking the series to Seattle would have set them up so well to advance to the next round. But since taking heart is all we’ve got, it’ll have to do. It is true that the Mariners bats are wide awake, Castillo goes next, and then there will be playoff baseball in Seattle.