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 left the bat of Yordan Alvarez and most of the 47,165 in Minute Maid Park roared in anticipation, Ray was already walking towards 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 walkoff homer. The only question remaining was 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 their most crushing defeats in franchise history.
And as Alvarez circled the bases and his teammates awaited at home plate to celebrate their stunning 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, yet another chapter of failure against the Astros will be written with a storyline so improbable.
How did it get this point with Ray standing on the mound against a team that owned him this season with the game on the line?
Like anything with manager Scott Servais, this wasn’t just a gut feeling. It was a decision borne out of discussion, data and debate. The Mariners plan and then plan again for possibilities and success rates.
“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 7th inning and said, ‘hey, this could happen.'”
It happened because the Mariners’ bullpen, including two of its best relievers, allowed baserunners and runs, putting them into 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. While Munoz wouldn’t allow any more runs, he did face enough hitters to allow for the top of that Astros’ lineup to be a factor.
Servais called on Paul Sewald to start the ninth with a two-run lead. After retiring the first batter of the inning, he fell behind and then hit pinch-hitter David Hensley with a pitch 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 strike or didn’t come for Sewald. Pena golfed a single to center to bring the hulking Alvarez, one of the most dangerous left-handed hitters in baseball, to come 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 stunning 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 plenty 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 10 2/3 innings pitched, while the Astros racked up a .442/.509/.865 slash line with four doubles, six homers, seven walks and seven strikeouts in 59 plate appearances. appearance against this season.
Houston hitters were so dialed in against him that he wondered if he was tipping his pitches. It got to the point where he was resorted to throwing a two-seam fastball during a June 12 start in an effort to stop the carnage.
Now he was on the mound facing Alvarez, who represented the winning run, with runners on first and second and a sold-out crowd on its feet.
Alvarez was right on a first-pitch sinker from Ray, fouling it back. Ray threw the same pitch in a worst spot, and Alvarez crushed it.
It crushed a magical performance where the Mariners scored six runs on 10 hits off Astros ace Justin Verlander, knocking him out after four innings.
Seattle held leads of 4-0, 6-2 and 7-3.
Yes, the Mariners handed Verlander one of his four losses in the regular season back on May 27 at T-Mobile Park. It was his worst defeat in terms of hits (10), runs (6) and homers (4) allowed in a game.
But in his final six starts of this season, Verlander made six starts and posted a 0.84 ERA, allowing three earned runs on 15 hits in 32 innings pitched with 47 strikeouts and four walks.
But that version of Verlander wasn’t on the mound on Tuesday afternoon.
It was apparent 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 dumped a single into right field to score Rodriguez and give the Mariners a 1-0 lead.
And 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 a single through the shift. Instead of bunting the runners into scoring position, JP 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.
The six runs allowed tied for the most earned runs allowed by Verlander in 30 postseason starts. In Game 1 of the 2006 World Series vs. the Cardinals, he gave up seven runs (six earned) on six hits with two walks and eight strikeouts in five innings of work.
Seattle starter Logan Gilbert gave the Mariners a solid outing, allowing three runs over 5 1/3 innings. But the Astros also picked up two runs off Andres Munoz on a two-run homer from Alex Bregman.
This story will be updated.