The keys to Mariners moving on from devastating Game 1 loss
The Mariners are exactly where we thought they would be. It might not be of any solace a day after a loss like that, but to win a road start in Game 1 of the ALDS against Justin Verlander was always going to be a bonus, not a necessity.
Verlander made six starts in the regular season against the Mariners, and outside of a dominating win on May 27, this team combined to score five total runs in the other five starts, losing all of them. So yes, we are where we thought this series would be after Game 1 despite a thoroughly chaotic path to get there.
Clichés ring out with regularity across baseball, but if there is one to hold onto today it is that “momentum is the next game’s starting pitcher.” We saw that a few days ago after a clinical, dominant 4-0 win over the Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card opener led to precisely no carryover the next day, as the Mariners proceeded to quickly fall behind 4-0.
With the best pitcher the M’s could possibly ask for to take the ball for Game 2 (Luis Castillo), it gives the Mariners the same opportunity they had on Tuesday: the chance to steal a win on the road before sending it back to Seattle, where two straight wins would then give them the series. How they get there will be more complicated.
Here are the key elements that played out in Game 1 and why they will be critical in Game 2 Thursday.
Everything is magnified in the postseason
It was a near-perfect start for the Mariners. The Houston crowd was silenced early and Verlander had to labor through the first two innings. Yet on a stage this big and with the stakes so high, every missed chance looms larger, and the Mariners were ultimately unable to take advantage, to sound the death knell for Verlander’s day when they had the opportunity.
Sure, it might be greedy to ask for more from an offense that put up 10 hits and six runs (tying for the most Verlander has ever allowed in a playoff start), but the Mariners left runs on the bases in the first two innings, and a ballooning pitch count settled down for the Astros ace. First and third, one out in the first inning doesn’t yield any more runs. In the second inning it was Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña’s terrific stab that led to a double play, which staunched the bleeding after Verlander had allowed four hits and three runs with just one out recorded.
Everything is magnified in the postseason, especially when the final margin of defeat is a single run, and the decision to send Ty France home from second on a single in the fourth inning unfortunately looms as a massive and costly error. The Mariners had notched four straight hits (a descending cycle!) with two outs on Verlander, who was out of gas and in fact done after that inning, yet tried to sneak another run in after a single to left field. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Ty France is not one of the faster baserunners on this team. He’s thrown out by a comfortably wide margin at home, Cal Raleigh is left standing on deck, and the Mariners scored just one more run over the final five innings.
This could easily go under the first topic as well because there were a number of key at-bats and little moments that led to the ultimate finality of the Astros’ walk-off win. I won’t dive into a dissertation of that final at-bat – we’ve written about it, you’ve heard about it, and from a Mariners perspective the less reliving of that the better. The Astros are good, maybe one of the best teams ever assembled, and you don’t make five straight ALCS appearances without knowing how to win when trailing… but the Mariners bullpen had the kind of opportunity it has thrived on all year and simply didn’t get it done.
Paul Sewald, who gave up a two-out, two-strike single to Peña in the ninth that allowed Yordan Alvarez to come up against Robbie Ray with the chance to win the game, valiantly took the blame afterwards.
“I had Peña two strikes and didn’t make the pitch,” Sewald said. “Robbie should have never gone out there. You know, that’s my job, that’s what I’ve been doing well all season and to not do it was disappointing. Felt like I let down the team, just have to shake it and get back to work.”
But there were a number of moments that led to that situation.
The Astros sent six men to the plate in the eighth, cutting into the deficit and allowing that heart of the order to have a possibility to bat in the ninth. And then they executed when they had to in that final inning.
The cacophonous waves of sound coming from the home crowd and the frustrating resiliency of the Astros won’t go away in Game 2, but the Mariners’ bullpen has experienced it firsthand now in the postseason. You can’t abandon what got you to this point, and now you simply hope that after the first true encounter of what it takes to close out the Astros in the playoffs, the key arms that carried this team all season can cut through the noise and silence the crowd on Thursday.
Top of the order production
It was swept away from our consciousness after the way the game ended, but the bats delivered in a massive way for the Mariners. There are a lot of encouraging things to take away, including how the offense performed against Verlander and what sustained production like that could mean for the rest of the series.
The top three in the M’s order (Julio Rodríguez, France, Eugenio Suárez) combined for seven hits, five RBIs and four runs scored. That’s an important development for a team that went through prolonged offensive slumps towards the end of the season. Do that consistently and you will win a large majority of games.
The issue, and the reason the Mariners didn’t win, of course, is the top of the order on the other side. Jose Altuve struggled Tuesday but the Mariners know firsthand how dangerous he can be at the plate. Peña, a rookie, put together the most important at-bat of the game in the ninth inning, and Alvarez will be a massive problem the rest of the way. Whichever team mitigates the damage from what the other produced from the top of its order in Game 1 will put itself in a good position down the stretch.
It’s a funny thing about any series in sports, especially in the postseason where wins resonate louder, losses linger longer and not all tied series are created equal. If the Mariners can win Game 2, then they will have gotten back up off the mat, having taken the best the Astros threw at them and responded by overcoming one of the most agonizing losses any of them have experienced. That loss, that swing, and the indelible moment of the walk-off is mitigated and pushed away with the fresh memory of a win and heading home with a 1-1 tie.
Conversely, if the Mariners had won Game 1 only to lose like that in Game 2, it’s a completely different mood and feeling for both teams heading into the weekend. There is more baseball to be played, and the Mariners can start to erase that memory with a win on Thursday.