Don’t lie, you were starting to believe the 2022 Seattle Mariners were a Team of Destiny. It wasn’t that they made the playoffs — great story, but one that already had its grand finale — and it wasn’t that they got a great performance from bonafide ace Luis Castillo in Game 1 against the Toronto Blue Jays. That happens. Storming back from seven runs down to earn the sweep, though? Like that? OK, it piqued some interest. And by the time they had dumped six runs on Houston Astros ace Justin “gonna win the Cy Young at 39” Verlander? Yeah, it felt real. You were watching a date with destiny. But then, in a stomach-churning twist for the charming and heretofore charmed Mariners, the truth made itself plain: Destiny had come to meet Yordan Alvarez.
The 6-foot-5 Astros thumper did not sneak up on his moment. Alvarez debuted in June 2019, and has thus far been one of the most dominant young hitters in major-league history. His park- and era-adjusted OPS through four seasons (one of which got wiped out by injury) ranks fifth since integration, behind only Frank Thomas, Ralph Kiner, Albert Pujols and Mike Trout.
Not included in those numbers is a humbling 2019 postseason that saw him struggle against high fastballs, strike out in huge moments, and even get removed for pinch-hitter Aledmys Diaz in the ALCS. Since he returned from a lost 2020 season, he has eliminated his weaknesses at the plate like the Terminator. He chases fewer balls, makes more contact and strikes out way, way less than other sluggers capable of whacking 37 homers and slugging .613 on the season.
In 2022, his overall offensive production ranked second only to Aaron Judge’s 62-homer campaign by wRC+. He slugged .613, also second in MLB to Judge, while putting the bat on balls in the zone at the same rate (89.6%) as batting champion Jeff McNeil. He is night unstoppable. So if you had to pick one hitter to produce a run in one now-or-never plate appearance in the year 2022, there’s a good case for Alvarez as the choice out of all humans on earth.
Which makes it really something that he was the man on deck with two on and two out and the Astros down two in Game 1 on Tuesday.
Baseball has never seen a home run quite like Yordan Alvarez’s
Down late in a postseason game is a tough time to hit. Down just a little bit late in a postseason game? Even tougher. Since 1995, postseason batters playing for teams down three runs or less after the seventh inning are hitting .224/.291/.350. In the ninth, it drops to .214/.281/.322. Generally, they are dealing with the best relief pitcher on one of baseball’s best teams. Usually, it goes the pitcher’s way.
When Alvarez came up, with the Astros down two, history frowned upon his odds of even tying the game, much less ending it with one swing. Coming into the day, there had been 849 playoff plate appearances since 1995 in the ninth inning or later with runners on, and the hitter’s team down three runs or less. Only seven of them ended with the batting team in the lead.
The mightiest swing, the most majestic turn of events postseason baseball has witnessed in that span actually came in Houston’s Minute Maid Park, at the expense of the Astros. In Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS, St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols encountered a nearly identical situation — a mirror image, frankly. He was on the road team, batting from the right side. Alvarez was on the home team, batting from the left. They were both in the ninth inning, down two runs, men on first and second. They even struck on the same count, 0-1.
Pujols belted a Brad Lidge slider onto the train tracks in deep left field. Alvarez took starter turned impromptu closer Robbie Ray into the upper deck in right field.
Because Alvarez’s homer left no possibility of a comeback, it rocketed the Astros’ probability of winning — via FanGraphs’ live calculation — from 8.6% to 100%. That would make it the most game-changing walk-off in postseason history, nudging ahead of Kirk Gibson’s famous 1988 blast off Dennis Eckersley. We already know it was the first playoff walk-off homer hit while down more than one run.
This was a moment almost no one is prepared for colliding in the cosmos with the exception to the rule.
What does it take to beat the Astros? We haven’t seen it yet
It wasn’t just the win probability charts that had whiplash. In the blink of an eye, the focus flipped from one No. 44 (Julio Rodriguez) to another (Alvarez). The balance of the series turned from underdog with the upper hand to Goliath with a firm grip. The Mariners haven’t even been here in the playoffs in a generation. The Astros are looking for their sixth straight ALCS appearance.
It was a full vibe shift, and that can be hard to process.
Getting behind the Mariners was easy. They have the charismatic young superstar, the relief of breaking a playoff drought, and the scene stealer with a goofy nickname who keeps hitting homers that will keep said goofy nickname on highlight reels for decades to come. If you’re a true believer, maybe one who works at a Seattle area Toyota dealership, you shouldn’t despair yet. They could yet prove to be a Team of Destiny. Those Astros that Pujols victimized, you’ll recall, won the next game to claim the series and reach the World Series.
Getting behind Alvarez may seem more complicated given the Astros’ October omnipresence and their illicit 2017 attempts at omniscience. But you don’t have to lump Alvarez in with the sins of a team he wasn’t on. This was a homer you’ll be able to see coming on broadcasts in 40 years. This was fire meeting iron, and the fire melting. You don’t have to root for him, or for the Astros, to accept this as spectacular evidence of the force that must be reckoned with in the American League.
If the Mariners or any other team are going to get past the Astros, it’s not going to be on a flight of fancy. It’s not going to be discounted as destiny. It’s going to be a hard-earned, historic change in the gravity of baseball. At least in Game 1, that gravity wasn’t up to the challenge of Yordan Alvarez just yet.