HOUSTON — The walk-off home run Houston Astros slugger Yordan Álvarez hit to cap a wild come-from-behind victory in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Tuesday called to mind great blasts of Octobers past.
It left the bat with all the ferocity and velocity of another postseason home run at Minute Maid Park: Albert Pujols‘ laser off Brad Lidge in 2005. It was the first game-ending shot by a team that was trailing at the time since Joe Carter’s homer that won Toronto the 1993 World Series. And though it won’t register in the all-time annals because the Astros’ 8-7 victory over the Seattle Mariners arrived so early in the postseason, the 41,125 in attendance and those in both clubhouses — elated on one side, stunned silent on the other — couldn’t help but marvel at Álvarez’s feat.
The Mariners, in the postseason for the first time in two decades, blew a lead similar to the one they’d overcome in their wild card-clinching win Saturday against Toronto. And after chipping away at that 7-3 deficit with a two-run home run by Alex Bregman in the eighth inning, Houston rode Álvarez’s home run to its ninth consecutive playoff-opening victory, tying a major league record.
“If you’re a fan of Houston and that didn’t get you excited, get you animated, I don’t know what to say,” Álvarez said. “I was also speaking to my wife about somebody that wasn’t having a great day, and that moment changed their day for them, and those are the small details. You can change somebody’s day with things like that.”
As animated as the Astros and crowd were, Seattle’s day changed demonstrably for the worse with one 93 mph sinker over the heart of the plate. With closer Paul Sewald allowing two runners to reach, Mariners manager Scott Servais called upon left-hander Robbie Ray to face Álvarez, also left-handed. Ray, the reigning AL Cy Young winner who signed a $115 million free agent deal with Seattle last winter, is typically a starter, but Seattle planned to use him in a fireman role in Game 1.
Álvarez is no ordinary conflagration. The 25-year-old is one of the best hitters in baseball, occupying the No. 3 spot in Houston’s dangerous lineup, and with no discernible platoon split and Ray’s propensity to give up home runs, Servais gambled — and lost. Álvarez fouled Ray’s first pitch, a 94 mph sinker, almost straight back. The second went forward 438 feet, landing in the right-field bleachers after trampolining off Álvarez’s bat at 117 mph.
“I was just trying to get the sinker in on him,” Ray said. “Just didn’t get there. … Just frustrating.”
Never, Ray said, did he consider pitching around Álvarez and loading the bases. The Mariners found themselves in a precarious position because Sewald hit pinch hitter David Hensley with a full-count fastball and lost Jeremy Pena by leaving over the plate a 1-2 slider that the rookie whacked into center field. Then came Álvarez.
“He didn’t miss it,” Astros second baseman Jose Altuve said. “He’s just a great hitter. He’s not gonna miss twice.”
Altuve knows the feeling of hitting a walk-off homer in the playoffs, having won the 2019 pennant with his shot to left field at Minute Maid off New York Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, but even that was a tie game. A postseason walk-off homer trailing by multiple runs with two outs in the ninth inning? Never happened prior to Tuesday.
The Astros showing up in October is nothing new. They’ve been to five consecutive AL Championship Series and this season won an AL-best 106 games, nearly matching their franchise record. With a loaded pitching staff, deep bullpen, strong lineup and excellent fielding, they’re the presumptive favorites to win the pennant.
Of course, they didn’t expect to start their postseason with ace Justin Verlander — the likely AL Cy Young winner this season — allowing six runs on 10 hits in four innings. Seattle jumped on him for a run in the first, three in the second and a pair in the fourth, with a two-run home run from J.P. Crawford and the top two hitters, Julio Rodriguez and Ty France, going 5 for their first 5 and catalyzing the Mariners’ offense.
Houston’s bullpen mostly stifled Seattle, carving a path down which Astros hitters gladly walked. Yuli Gurriel homered in the fourth to cut the deficit to 6-3. Bregman did his job in the eighth. And when Álvarez saw Ray warming, he grabbed an iPad, looked through video of his five previous at-bats against the 31-year-old and tried to replicate what he did in the regular season, when he hit .306/.406/.613 in 136 games.
“The postseason is just an extension of the season, really,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He has a very slow pulse rate, I’m sure. He doesn’t show excitement too much. He has a high level of concentration, discipline and confidence. You know you’ve got a chance when Yordan comes to the plate, and when he doesn’t come through you’re almost surprised. I mean, you know nobody can do it all the time, but he’s pretty good at it.”
Good undersells Álvarez. He put the Astros on the board first with a two-run double in the third inning and then accounted for their final tally on a sinker that didn’t sink when it was supposed to — and sunk Seattle’s first crack at stealing the home-field advantage that was in its grip. The Mariners will get another chance Thursday, when Luis Castillo, their prized deadline acquisition, faces Houston left-hander Framber Valdez in Game 2.
“It’s like a heavyweight fight,” Servais said. “You’re going to get punched. It’s how you respond in those moments and that’s a tough one. Today I thought we had it in hand. You got to give them credit. Certainly they have been in this spot many times before and you don’t quit.”