This game was like a fight to the death between two lions: one, the Old King of the Pride, and the other, the young stud challenger.
For most of this game, the old man of the jungle appeared tired; the young upstart was ripping him apart with fierce blows by mighty claws.
But the Old King had fought many battles. He had triumphed time and time again under more dire circumstances than this. Just when the young lion appeared to have the old man’s throat by the maw, the Old King turned the tables and finished off yet another pretender just when all seemed lost.
Frankly, until the end of this game, the Astros looked beaten and mauled, like they deserved to be the victims of feline regicide.
The offense, the defense, and the starting pitching all faltered in this game to an Orioles team that is clearly an emerging dynasty. It was hard to watch most of this game and conclude that it’s the Astros that have the mojo to win the 2023 world championship. The Orioles outplayed the Astros in every facet of the game and made their ace pitcher look like a 5th starter.
Outplayed that is, until the end.
One game after throwing a no-hitter, Astros starter Framber Valdez allowed six earned runs in seven innings pitched. Two two-run homers, one to Ryan Mountcastle in the first inning that went 472 feet, the other to Adley Rutschman in the second, accounted for most of the runs.
However, with clean play in the field, much of this damage to Valdez could have been avoided. Ramon Urias opened the second inning with a “triple” to the right fielder that was in and out of his glove and clearly catchable. It’s hard to believe it was scored a hit.
One missed out.
The next batter hit a swinging bunt to the pitcher, who made an impossible attempt at a play to home instead of going to first for the easy out.
Two missed outs.
The next batter grounded out. Should have been out three.
Rutschman then homered. With good defense, Valdez would have had a 1-2-3 inning instead of giving up three runs.
The Orioles added a run in the fourth after a lead-off double by Jordan Westburg, who was later sacrificed home by James McCann.
So Baltimore scored three legitimate runs. And that’s all the Astros could muster.
For eight innings.
The Astros did rally in the third with two runs. It started with a Jose Altuve walk, an Alex Bregman single, an Alvarez walk to load the bases and an RBI single by Kyle Tucker. The second run scored on a Yainer Diaz sac fly.
They got another run using a little small ball in the eighth. Kyle Tucker — remember that name — led off with a walk, stole second, and with two outs, scored on Jeremy Pena single.
Ryne Stanek held the Os in the bottom of the eighth, leaving the Astros’ bleeding offense one inning to double their run output.
It looked like the old lion was ready to surrender and die. But the Astros’ newest lion cub, Jon Singleton, 31-year-old promotee from AAA today in his first at-bat of the season, helped the Astros wriggle out of the death grip with a lead-off walk against perhaps baseball’s best closer, Felix Bautista. Singleton displayed remarkable plate discipline.
Jose Altuve then blooped a single to short left. Yordan Alvarez, robbed of a homer earlier, hit another ball to the fence that could have been caught but came out of the center fielder’s glove as he hit the wall. But it ended up just a long single that loaded the bases.
Up to the plate came the second part of one of the most potent lefty-lefty hitting combos since the 1920s Yankees. Kyle Tucker, Lion King Tuck, battled fastballs as high as 102 MPH, and on the ninth pitch of the at-bat, pulled a 100.4 MPH fastball 403 feet into the right field seats to give the Astros their first lead and put the upstart lion’s neck firmly within the voracious jaws of the clever Old King.
With one swing, the grand slam increased the Astros’ win probability from 15.9% to 82.6%.
It also increased Bautista’s ERA from 0.85 to 1.52.
Ryan Pressly picked the bones of the foolish challenger with a clean ninth to give the Astros the improbable, but never impossible, 7-6 win.
The Astros have won so many big games after it looked like they had no hope that we should never count them out. Like Games Two and Five of the 2017 World Series. Or Game Six of the 2019 ALCS. Or Game One of the 2022 NLCS. And on and on. And yet even the best fans among us, including myself, too often give up on our team.
The Astros are ice-cold killers, and they never give up.
Tucker drove in five of the seven Astros runs and scored two, one thanks to deft baserunning. Extend the man and make him a lifelong Astros. He’s been underrated for far too long.