By KRISTIE RIEKEN AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON — Yordan Alvarez smashed a game-ending, three-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning off Robbie Ray, wrecking Seattle’s strategy of using a Cy Young Award winner in a rare relief role and vaulting the Houston Astros over the Mariners, 8-7, Tuesday in their playoff opener.
Trailing all game after a poor start by Justin Verlander, the AL West champion Astros overtook rookie star Julio Rodríguez and the wild-card Mariners at the end to begin their best-of-five Division Series.
The Astros had been 0-48 in their postseason history when trailing by more than a run after eight innings until Alvarez homered deep into the seats to overcome a 7-5 deficit.
The no-doubt drive was the first walk-off homer in postseason history with a team trailing by multiple runs. And it was just the second walk-off homer with team down to its final out – the other was Kirk Gibson’s startling shot that lifted the Dodgers over the Oakland A’s in the 1988 World Series opener.
Houston rookie pinch-hitter David Hensley reached with one out in the ninth as Seattle closer Paul Sewald grazed his jersey with a pitch. Sewald struck out Jose Altuve before Jeremy Peña laced a single to center field to chase Sewald.
Mariners manager Scott Servais then made the bold move to bring in Ray, who started Saturday at Toronto in the AL wild-card series, for a lefty vs. lefty matchup with Alvarez. Ray won the Cy Young Award last year with Toronto, had made only six relief appearances in his career and had never earned a pro save.
A percentage move – or was it?
Alvarez had a .998 OPS against left-handed pitchers this season, by far the highest among qualified left-handed hitters, and 10 home runs. And his batting average against lefties was .321, compared to .299 vs righties.
Alvarez, who hit 37 homers in the regular season, turned around Servais’ plan by launching Ray’s pitch into the seats in right field to set off a wild celebration with his parents in the stands.
The Mariners, back in the playoffs this year for the first time since 2001, were on the wrong end of a big comeback this time after rallying from a seven-run deficit in Game 2 to sweep their wild-card series with Toronto.
The Mariners jumped on Verlander for six runs in just four innings to build a 6-2 lead early. Yuli Gurriel hit a solo homer in the Houston fourth before Eugenio Suarez’s solo shot in the seventh extended Seattle’s lead to 7-3.
A two-run homer by Alex Bregman off Andrés Muñoz cut the lead to 7-5 in the eighth inning to set up the dramatic finish.
Alvarez had a two-run double in the third to get Houston’s offense going a bit before it really took off in the final two innings.
The Astros, who are trying to reach the ALCS for a sixth straight season, led the AL with 106 wins but looked a bit out of sorts early after a six-day layoff since their last regular-season game.
They got going late to continue their dominance of the Mariners in Houston after going 30-7 against them in the regular season at Minute Maid Park since 2019.
Verlander followed up his remarkable comeback season after missing almost two full seasons after Tommy John surgery with a flop in the worst postseason performance of his storied career.
He led the majors with a 1.75 ERA and topped the AL with 18 wins this season. He dominated the Mariners in the regular season, going 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA in six starts.
Expectations were high for him to build on a regular season that is expected to earn him his third Cy Young Award in his first playoff appearance since Game 6 of the 2019 World Series.
Instead, the Mariners hit almost everything he threw in what was his 32nd playoff game. By the time he trudged off the mound mumbling something to himself after just four innings, he’d given up a playoff career-high 10 hits with six earned runs, which tied his most in a postseason game.
The last four batters Verlander delivered, in order, a home run, a triple, a double and a single.
Rodríguez tripled, doubled and scored three times and Ty France (West Covina’s South Hills High) had three hits.
Rodríguez, who had just one single in the wild-card round, sparked things early as he drew a leadoff walk and advanced to third on a single by France. Cal Raleigh’s RB single quieted a rowdy sellout crowd.
Adam Frazier and Jarred Kelenic hit consecutive singles to start the second. Rodríguez extended the lead to 3-0 when he hit a double into the gap in right-center.
France’s second single of the game came next to send Rodríguez home and leave Seattle ahead, 4-0.
After pitching a clean third inning, Verlander ran into trouble again with two outs in the fourth when Crawford homered on a fastball high to push the lead to 5-2.
Rodriguez followed with a triple to the gap in left field. He lost his batting helmet as he rounded second, and after sliding safely into third, he smiled broadly and yelled, “Let’s go!” toward his dugout.
He scored when France doubled to left field to extend Seattle’s lead to 6-2.
Eugenio Suarez singled, but France was thrown out at home to end the inning and Verlander’s outing. With his disappointing day done, he got a hug and a pat from Manager Dusty Baker after he reached the dugout.
Mariners starter Logan Gilbert yielded five hits and three runs with five strikeouts in his playoff debut.
Astros reliever Phil Maton revealed Tuesday that he broke his right pinkie when he punched a locker in frustration after Houston’s regular-season finale and will miss the postseason.
Maton had surgery Monday to repair the fractured finger on his pitching hand.
The 29-year-old Maton gave up two hits, including a single to younger brother Nick Maton, and two runs while recording one out in the eighth inning of Houston’s 3-2 victory over Philadelphia last Wednesday.
Seattle’s deadline acquisition Luis Castillo, who got the win in the team’s playoff opener, opposes Framber Valdez in Game 2 on Thursday in Houston.
— MLB (@MLB) October 11, 2022
Yordan ALVAREZ is a BAD MAN! pic.twitter.com/KPwVDzqBJH
— Cut4 (@Cut4) October 11, 2022