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Mariners find snake in boot, get bit by it, lose 4-2 to Astros

the waiting is the hardest part

Division Series - Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Since 2017, the Mariners have struggled against the Astros, the bullies of the AL West. Sometimes they’ve looked desperately outclassed and other times they’ve lost closer games, like today’s 4-2 loss. In my memory, though, having watched the Mariners of past years go out and lie down willingly to be run over by the Astros’ backhoes, today’s game doesn’t sting as badly as an 11-1 blowout, or a shutout, or a sleepy loss that balloons into a sloppy loss, or any of the other ways the Mariners have lost games to the Astros in the past. The stakes are higher, and the agony of defeat is that much sharper, but that’s the price of playoff baseball, and it’s a price we’re all willing to pay.

It’s frustrating to lose, of course. But it’s hard for me to feel badly about how the Mariners lost this game, even though it was a heartbreaker and they now face elimination in their first home playoff game in two decades-plus. Mariners fans know more than anyone, weird and fluky things happen in baseball games, and today the Mariners outplayed the Astros in several facets of the game; they just didn’t come away with the win. I’ll take that process over the end product any day, even if it stings.

What’s making this loss easier for me to swallow: the Mariners had the better starter in this game and it wasn’t close. The game started out tight, with Valdez shutting down the Mariners lineup 1-2-3 the first time through, finally giving up a double to J.P. Crawford, who banged one off the Crawford Boxes and forced Yordan Álvarez to stumble after it like a truffle pig rooting through the underbrush. That brought up Julio Rodríguez, whose game plan—like many of the Mariners—was to be aggressive on the fastball, trying to keep Valdez from getting to his curveball. So Julio, first pitch swinging on a curveball, scalded a ball at 100 MPH, but a 32-year-old José Altuve decided to summon the spirit of prime Jeter:

That set the tone for the day—the Astros brought their A game, defensively, with even the slug-footed Álvarez making some solid plays in the outfield. Even that, though, is encouraging; in past years, the Astros haven’t even looked like they had to try that hard to defeat the Mariners. This is playoff Astros, and the first time the Mariners are seeing playoff Astros, and surprise, surprise, it’s terrifying.

But the Mariners would adjust their approach, eventually waiting out some shaky command from Valdez in the fourth and forcing him to throw 26 pitches in the inning. Suárez started off with a walk, then Mitch Haniger had one of the best plate appearances of the year, working a double off Suárez. Carlos Santana then hit a chopper to score Suárez from third, and Dylan Moore went hero mode with a single of his own to give the Mariners a 2-1 advantage.

The Mariners would go on to chase Valdez, who largely abandoned his curveball after the fourth, in the sixth; after Ty France and Eugenio Suárez made a pair of quick outs, Mitch Haniger had another great plate appearance, working a walk by forcing Valdez to go back to the curveball heavily, which he simply didn’t have a great feel for. Carlos Santana followed that with a single, and then Dylan Moore had another great at-bat, chasing Framber after he walked DMo to load the bases. Scott Servais praised DMo’s improved plate approach this year, which seemed odd to me, as he’s striking out as much as he ever did, almost a third of the time. However, DMo has raised his walk rate from his career rate of around 8% up to about 13% in limited action this season, and no walk loomed larger than this one today. Hector Neris came in after that and fooled Cal Raleigh with a bunch of splitters, inducing a groundout and stranding the bases loaded, but at the time, I felt positively about the Mariners’ offensive approach.

Meanwhile, Luis Castillo, who will be handed a very tough loss for this game, outpitched Valdez in every facet of the game. He went seven innings to Valdez’s 5.2; struck out 7 to his 6; and didn’t walk a batter, where Valdez walked three. He held Altuve to 0-for-4, and dominated the bottom of the lineup, allowing just one hit to batters 6-9 in 12 ABs. He absolutely ate Jake Meyers’s lunch twice:

He also did this:

Unfortunately, the hits he gave up were two big ones: a home run to Kyle Tucker in the second inning when he dropped the barrel on a slider, and a home run to Álvarez on a pitch that was a pitch that only Yordan Álvarez can hit out.

There was a lot of armchair GM second-guessing on this—why not just walk him? Why throw a sinker? As for the second part, Álvarez crushes almost everything Castillo throws: he’s slugging .871 on changeups, .663 on sliders, and .752 on four-seamers. He’s only (‘only’) slugging .463 on sinkers, so it makes sense for Castillo to throw one of his best pitches, and put it in a place where Álvarez hopefully couldn’t get his long arms onto it. That’s what happened, though, and we can’t even be particularly mad about Baby’s First Ballpark on that—according to Dan Morse’s eminently helpful DongBot, that would have been a home run at 22 of the 30 MLB parks.

The more annoying part was that was a two-run homer instead of a solo shot, and that’s because Jeremy Peña continues to be a real Peña in the butt for the Mariners. Proving Chaos Ball goes both ways, Peña parachuted a little single into no-man’s-land right before Álvarez came up.

That would happen again later, when Peña worked a walk off Andrés Muñoz in the eighth. I don’t know why Muñoz opted to throw his fastball instead of the slider, his best pitch, to Peña, but he wasn’t able to land it for a strike, missing up and in to do the un-do-able thing, put a man on base in front of Yordan. The Mariners this time opted to walk Álvarez, appeasing the armchair managers, but Alex Bregman quickly showed why that’s really not a sustainable plan, redirecting the first pitch he saw—101.4 MPH—into right field for an RBI single. That pushed the Astros lead to 4-2, where it would remain. Aside from that one run, the Astros depended on homers for all the rest of their runs today; the Mariners didn’t have a home run. Relying on home runs for offense is a risky proposition, although less risky when playing in Baby’s First Ballpark. The Mariners are much more built to make pitchers work, create traffic on the bases, and hope for the key hit to bring runners home in gobs. That results in a lot of stranded base runners, unfortunately, but to me it feels more sustainable than the Oops! All Homers approach.

The big talking point about this game in Seattle media will be, however, the number of runners the Mariners left on base, specifically when the Mariners left the bases loaded in the sixth without scoring. For me, it’s somewhat forgivable due to the circumstances—Ty France and Eugenio Suárez led off that inning making two quick outs on a combined five pitches, still trying to be aggressive against Valdez before he could get to his curveball. After the Mariners displayed patience, worked walks and a key double, and forced Dusty Baker to go to his bullpen, Cal Raleigh, who is in his first full season, had to face Hector Neris, who has been in the league since Cal was a sophomore in high school. It didn’t work out, but it’s not because of poor process, it’s because an incredibly tough ask was made of a young player—a player who has come up huge for the Mariners before, but nonetheless, a young player who has had all of one (1) career at-bat against Neris.

And that’s what’s frustrating about the Astros. They have built a perpetual motion machine where young players are folded in around a veteran core; no one is asking Jeremy Peña or David Hensley to do all the heavy lifting. They had the best player on the field today in Álvarez, who has been to the post-season every full season he’s played, and he was the difference in this game. Maybe one day Julio will be that difference-maker—he came up with a big double in the ninth and hit the ball hard twice, but had just the one double. But Julio, too, has been to the post-season every full season he’s played, and so now has Cal Raleigh, and Logan Gilbert, and George Kirby, and Jarred Kelenic, who almost had a heroic pinch-hit homer today that came just short of clearing the wall. Snakebit day, indeed.

It doesn’t feel good to come up just short. But it feels a lot better than standing at the bottom of a hole, looking up at the Astros looming way above. The Mariners have built a ladder—they have also built the ladder that is chaos, just in case—and some day these close misses won’t be close misses. It sucks for a fanbase that has waited for 21 years to have to potentially wait a little more, and of course nothing is guaranteed in the future. Teams stumble all the time. But if there’s anything that getting kicked around the AL West by the Astros for the past half-decade should have taught Mariners fans, it’s that building a sustainable winner is possible.