It’s a smashing moment for Yordan Alvarez.
The 25-year-old Cuban professional baseball designated hitter and left fielder for the Houston Astros smashed a game-ending, three-run homer with two outs in the ninth inning off Robbie Ray, wrecking the Seattle Mariners‘ strategy of using a Cy Young Award winner in a rare relief role and vaulting the Astros to an 8-7 victory on Tuesday in their playoff opener.
Trailing all game after a poor start by Justin Verlander, the AL West champion Astros overtook rookie star Julio Rodriguez and the wildcard Mariners at the end to begin their best-of-five division series.
Houston was down 7-5 when 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 Pena 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, who won the Cy Young last year with Toronto, had made only six relief appearances in his career and had never earned a pro save.
Alvarez, who hit 37 homers in the regular season, sent Ray’s second pitch deep into the seats in right field to set off a wild celebration with his parents in the stands.
“I think it’s one of the most special moments that I’ve had in my career,” Alvarez said. “Having them there and just for the city of Houston they know that we’re a team that never gives up, so just being able to get that hit there was one of the most special moments in his career.”
His blast was the second walk-off home run in postseason history by a team down to its final out, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The other was Kirk Gibson‘s walk-off home run off Dennis Eckersley to lift the Los Angeles Dodgers to a Game 1 victory over the Oakland Athletics in the 1988 World Series.
The home run had an exit velocity of 116.7 mph, the fourth-fastest of the 546 walk-off home runs in the Statcast era and the highest ever in the postseason.
Servais said the decision to use Ray was something they had thought about.
“It was something going into the series where we were at, looking at our rotation, where we were going to head, and talking with Robbie about using him out of the bullpen as a bullet, so to speak, for that type of scenario,” he said. “You know, bringing in a lefty against Alvarez, although Alvarez is one of the better hitters in the league.
“But we talked about it coming into the series. We talked about it pregame today. I looked at it in the seventh inning and said, ‘Hey, this could happen.’ So that was the plan going in.”
Houston skipper Dusty Baker, who managed Servais while with the San Francisco Giants, refused to second-guess his former player.
“If he gets him out, then it looks great … next time Robbie Ray could win, but today we won,” Baker said.
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 Andres Munoz cut the lead to 7-5 in the eighth inning to set up the dramatic finish.