Sweep or not, Astros now know Mariners are coming for them

Oct 16, 2022, 1:27 PM | Updated: 8:28 pm
Mariners Julio Rodríguez...
Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners claps after stealing second base in Game 3 of the ALDS. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“Act like you’ve been here before” is a common phrase in the postseason, and if Mariners fans know anything about the Astros, it’s that they absolutely have been here before.

After sweeping aside the Mariners in three straight games in the American League Division Series, Houston is heading to a familiar destination: the AL Championship Series, which will be its sixth straight.

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Following Houston’s clinching win in an epic, 18-inning Game 3 at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park on Saturday, however, the Astros’ Twitter account went a different direction rather than acting like they’ve been here before.

Well, that’s certainly interesting. A “Believe” sign? A little jab at the Mariners’ punny “SEA US RISE” slogan? And, my goodness, a broom! Well I’ve never…

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the team that’s won five of the last six AL West titles and is now four wins away from reaching the World Series for the fourth time in that span seems a little hung up on their little brothers from the same division. And here we thought they might be a little more focused on winning their first championship without the help of a trash can signaling to them what pitch is coming.

Alright, let’s get serious now. The Astros won that series fair and square, or at least we have no reason to believe it was anything but. The Mariners didn’t get a single win off of them in the ALDS, and will now enter 2023 having lost nine of their last 10 games against Houston dating back to the regular season.

But the Astros know the Mariners are coming from them. And it has more to do with than just a cute little Twitter graphic.

The final scores of the ALDS were 8-7 in Game 1, 4-2 in Game 2, and 1-0 after playing enough for an entire doubleheader in Game 3. The M’s were at no point out of any of those ballgames. In fact, the Mariners led in 11 of the 36 total innings played in the series, while Houston led six (the remaining 19 were tied).

Not only that, but the Mariners’ offense sent a pretty strong message at the start of the series that they weren’t afraid of the big bads from Texas. They chased Justin Verlander, who is expected to be named the winner of the AL Cy Young Award for the third time in his career, with six runs on 10 hits and a walk over four innings in Game 1, a contest the M’s seemed well on their way to winning until disaster struck in the final two innings. Think about how differently the series could have gone had Seattle been able to close that game out.

Of course, Seattle didn’t. But after finishing 90-72 in the regular season to earn the second of the AL’s three wild cards to the playoffs, the Mariners weren’t outplayed by Houston, which went 106-56 to win the division and finish with the AL’s best overall record. Out-maneuvered? Sure. Robbie Raygate in Game 1, which capped off the M’s blowing a 7-3 lead after seven innings, certainly can be categorized as such. Out-clutched? Yordan Alvarez’s two homers and Jeremy Peña’s one in the series all fit that bill.

But for a sweep, this was about as close as it gets.

The Mariners’ pitching was every bit as good as Houston’s. The Astros simply have a better lineup and much more postseason experience, which provides a built-in culture of winning for their youngest players like Peña and Hunter Brown, a rookie pitcher who threw three scoreless innings in the ALDS.

After that series, Seattle’s own young players know how close the M’s are.

“We’re just as good as that team,” rookie pitcher George Kirby said after throwing seven scoreless innings Saturday. “Just some things didn’t go our way. … We’re there. You saw how we played this year. Just fell a little short. We’ve been fighting for each other all year and we’re gonna keep doing that for years to come … We’re not scared of anybody.”

Added catcher Cal Raleigh: “I think going into next year it’s gonna be huge now that we have playoff experience and we know what it takes and we know who we need to beat. It’s going to help us out a lot.”

Thing is, the Astros are trying to stay on top of the mountain. The Mariners are climbing, and they’re only going to get better in 2023. It will be the second or third full season for Kirby, Raleigh, Julio Rodríguez and Logan Gilbert, all homegrown players who had a 3.0 WAR or better per Fangraphs this year. Ty France and Eugenio Suárez will be back to help anchor the offense. Bullpen standout Andrés Muñoz will be just 24 years old when next season starts. And new ace Luis Castillo will be atop the rotation for the full year.

Don’t forget that this is shaping up to be maybe the biggest offseason in franchise history, too, with the Mariners in need of more offensive firepower and ready to spend, and plenty of interesting names (Aaron Judge, Trea Turner and Xander Bogaerts, to name a few) expected to be on the market.

The Mariners made huge strides in 2022, and probably went a little farther than most expected. Their two-game sweep in the AL Wild Card Series at Toronto was eye-opening, especially considering the Blue Jays have been seen as ahead of Seattle in terms of roster building thanks to young All-Stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette having established themselves as cornerstones.

In the ALDS, the M’s just ran into a team that’s better than them – for now, and only better enough to beat them by a grand total of four runs over three games.

I always think back to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls when it comes to young teams trying to initiate a changing of the guard. They had to run into the “Bad Boys” of the Detroit Pistons time and time again in the playoffs in the late 1980s. It took the Bulls four tries to get past Detroit, and every time they got a little closer. Took them to five games in 1987-88. Six games in 88-89. Seven games in 89-90. And in 90-91, the Bulls finally got through and never looked back, winning the first of their six championships in eight years.

Similarly, this was never going to be handed to the Mariners. The Astros aren’t leaving the window wide-open for them. But Seattle is prying that window open, and this team took the first big step this year toward figuring out how to get through it.

And you better believe the Astros have taken notice.

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