The death of the 2023 Astros has been greatly exaggerated.
Playoff dreams, so bright after the game one win Monday, seemed to vanish with last night’s loss.
But this early morning here in Houston, it looks like the Astros are once again in the driver’s seat. At least, a playoff berth is theirs to lose. (Although a tough Arizona team will have something to say about that this weekend.)
This was the most important regular season game for the Astros since 2015. And the Astros won.
It did not have an auspicious start.
In the game preview, I stressed that to avoid losing their 11th game in 15 tries, the Astros would need sharp pitching from Framber Valdez, tight defense, sharp baserunning, and clutch hitting.
At the outset, the Astros appeared lacking.
In the first, after working a walk, Alex Bregman inexplicably tried to steal second. He left too soon and was easily thrown out at second by the pitcher Bryce Miller. Needless to say, the Astros did not score in the first inning.
On the other hand, Valdez surrendered a home run to Seattle lead-off hitter J.P. Crawford to put the Astros in the kind of hole they have so seldom been able to dig out of most of September. Valdez walked two batters subsequently but Frambered his way out of additional trouble.
In the second inning, the no-clutch-hitting bugaboo bit as Mauricio Dubon stranded Michael Brantley, who doubled in his first at-bat in over a week.
The Astros finally scored a runner in scoring position when Alvarez led off the fourth inning.
His 442-foot smash to center field was hit at 116 MPH with only a 16-degree launch angle. It must have been the fastest center-field homer ever.
But speedy homers don’t count for extra. After singles by Jose Abreu and Brantley, light-hitting Mauricio Dubon muscled a three-run job over the left-center field fence to give the Astros a 4-1 lead.
In the fourth inning, the Mariners loaded the bases with one out. It looked like Valdez would work out of trouble after striking out Julio Rodriguez, but a two-out, two-run single by Eugenio Suarez brought the Mariners to within one run at 4-3.
In the fifth inning, Jose Altuve hit this lead-off double to right field.
400th career double for Tuve. pic.twitter.com/l012PdrVHl— Houston Astros (@astros) September 28, 2023
However, after getting to third on a fielder’s choice with one out, the no-clutch bug hit again, with Kyle Tucker and Jose Abreu failing to hit Altuve in.
The Astros knocked out the Mariners’ starter in the fifth, and the Astros brought in Kendall Graveman to face Seattle in the bottom of the fifth. He walked a batter, but a big double play preserved the Astros' lead.
In the sixth inning, neither team mounted a threat, but after Hector Neris struck out Julio Rodriguez, Neris walked straight toward Rodriguez, apparently unprovoked, while barking something. Rodriguez and Neris came close to an altercation, and both dugouts emptied.
In the seventh, Altuve flew out to loud boos, but the rest of the lineup turned the fan hate against the home team.
Alex Bregman got a single to right with a fielding error that put him on third. The Mariners intentionally walked Alvarez for the second straight at-bat, bringing up Tucker.
Strikeout artist Matt Brash was sent in, and Tuck doubled home Alvarez, leaving runners on second and third. He would not be humiliated like he was the last time they walked Alvarez to get at him.
Next, Jose Abreu knocked a dribbler through the drawn-in infield to score Alvarez, bringing up Brantley. The professional hitter knocked his third hit, a line drive up the middle for the Astros’ seventh run. (Where was Brantley in the last two games?)
Professional hitter being a professional hitter. pic.twitter.com/glqmmBtgNC— Houston Astros (@astros) September 28, 2023
In the bottom of the seventh, the Astros’ best reliever, Bryan Abreu, walked the first batter, but two k’s and a pop-up later found Seattle still down 7-3.
Astros product Trent Thornton was sent in to face Martin Maldonado and the Astros top of the order in the eighth inning.
“Dusty, bring in Yainer,” millions in Houston were thinking. Maldonado smashed his 15th homer, adding insurance.
Abreu stayed in for the eighth, a very unusual move for Dusty. Abreu struck out the first batter, walked the second, and Josh Rojas singled on the ninth pitch of his at-bat. It was only the Mriners’ second hit since the fourth inning.
Abreu whiffed Crawford, and Baker brought in the erratic closer, Ryan Pressly, in the middle of an inning, another unusual move.
In what must have seemed to Mariners fans as an example of the supremely unjust nature of the Universe, Pressly struck out Julio Rodriguez on three masterful pitches.
It was Julio (the Big Boy) Rodriguez’s fourth K. As a team, the Mariners struck out 16 times.
On the other side of the equation, Michael Brantley had four hits, and the Astros had 14. The Astros were 4-10 with runners in scoring position....And no errors.
As usual, Ryan Pressly made things a little interesting in the ninth inning, allowing a walk, a hit, and a long flyout.
But he held the line.
The Astros get to rest their super clutch bullpen tomorrow. The last series of the year starts Friday in Arizona.