ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 02: Lance McCullers Jr. #43 of the Houston Astros pitches against the Los Angeles Angels in the first inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on September 02, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
The Mariners need to borrow the Seahawks’ 12th Man home-field advantage to avoid being swept by the Astros in Game 3 of the ALDS on Saturday at T-Mobile Park.
The Yordan Alvarez-ignited 8-7 and 4-2 victories at Minute Maid Park laid the groundwork for the Mariners’ first home playoff game in 21 years.
The last time the Mariners hosted a playoff game was Oct. 18, 2001 when they opened the ALCS with a second consecutive loss to the Yankees at Safeco Field. The Mariners wasted one of the most historic regular seasons in Major League Baseball history after finishing with a 116-46 record and failing to reach the World Series won by the Yankees.
The Mariners have nothing to be embarrassed about in the 2022 playoffs. They upset the Blue Jays before suffering two crushing losses to the Astros, the best team in the American League that’s trying to reach a sixth consecutive ALCS and advance to the World Series for the fourth time in six years.
Seattle manager Scott Servais and his pitchers have no answer for Alvarez, who won the first two games with three- and two-run homers. Even when Servais elected to walk Alvarez in Game Two, his strategy backfired. Alex Bregman must have been insulted because he lined a single that drove in the fourth run and allowed Dusty Baker to breathe a little easier.
There’s much more depth to what the Astros have accomplished in their first two victories than Alvarez’s home runs that created pandemonium at Minute Maid Park.
For instance, Bregman’s two-run homer that kept the Astros in the first game before Alvarez provided one of the most dramatic moments in playoff history with his walk-off home run, Jeremy Pena’s clutch singles in both games to set the table for Alvarez, two outstanding defensive plays by Jose Altuve in the second game, Hector Neris bailing out Framber Valdez from a bases-loaded jam, a bullpen that was unhittable in Thursday’s victory that included a terrific running catch by Alvarez in leftfield and Yuli Gurriel’s quick-thinking double play at first base.
And, as Baker pointed out after Game 2, not to be overlooked was the role Martin Maldonaldo played by helping his pitchers through some difficult situations.
There seems to be something special about this Astros team. It’s like they’re on a mission to rebound from losing last year’s World Series to the Braves in six games. They’ll never admit it, but just about every fan knows the Astros would love to win a World Series that nobody could accuse them of being tarnished by the cheating scandal.
No trashcan-banging, buzzer-wearing accusations after their 2017 conquest of the Dodgers for the first World Series title in franchise history. They’ve put the costly scandal behind them even though opposing fans won’t let them forget it. The more they get ridiculed on the road, the more it seems to fuel them. That’s the way it’ll be in Seattle, and the Astros wouldn’t expect any less.
The only question is can they orchestrate a sweep by winning Saturday, then wait on the Yankees and Guardians to decide who’ll stand in the way of the Astros reaching a second consecutive World Series as they’re favored to do? Their message to Mariners’ fans: Bring it!
What do the Astros need to do in Seattle to prevent returning to Houston for a decisive fifth game?
Let’s start with the pitching. Valdez and Justin Verlander got no decisions at Minute Maid Park. Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros’ second-most experienced playoff pitcher behind Verlander, will oppose George Kirby, who’s making his first start in the playoffs after one relief appearance.
McCullers has been a revelation since returning from an injury to his right flexor tendon. He’s 4-2 with a 2.27 ERA in eight starts and looks like his old self. With so much playoff experience under his belt, McCullers won’t get rattled by rambunctious fans at T-Mobile Park. He’s appeared in 16 playoff games, including nine starts, and has a 2-2 record with a 2.83 ERA.
McCullers is just the starter Baker wants against the Mariners. In 18 career starts against Seattle, McCullers is 10-3 with a 2.80 ERA. He’s limited the Mariners to a slash line of .202/.288/.337.
McCullers is backed by a bullpen that’s allowed one run in two games spanning 8 1/3 innings. If he has to come out early, Baker can turn to Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia or Hunter Brown for multiple innings. He can utilize Ryne Stanek for the first time since Oct. 5. Neris, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly, all of whom contributed to Thursday’s victory, will be rested, as well.
Game 3 would be the ideal time for Altuve to start hitting. He’s got goose eggs through two games but made up for it Thursday with his exceptional defense. It’s only a matter of time considering how impressive he was over the latter part of a season in which he hit .300. In his last seven regular-season games, Altuve was .429/.478/.952.
The Mariners know they’re not going to win a playoff game for the first time since George W. Bush was president unless they’re able to control Alvarez. In the first two games, he has two homers, seven RBIs, a .500 average and an OPS of 1.931.
Servais can’t walk Alvarez every time he comes to the plate. He can pitch around the Astros’ slugger, but it’s not likely he’ll ask Kirby or any other pitcher to challenge Alvarez, who hits left-handed pitchers as well as righties. Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo found out the hard way just how magnificent Alvarez can be in the playoffs when he excels in clutch situations.
“I call him ‘Grande’ (because) he comes up big,” Baker said after Game 2. “He likes to be in the big moment. His concentration and discipline are beyond his years.”
Alvarez, 25, signed a six-year, $115-million contract extension in June. Once Aaron Judge gets his new mega-deal, Alvarez will continue to prove he’s the best bargain in baseball playing for a team that might be destined for another World Series.
(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).