‘That’s some Barry Bonds-type stuff’: Mariners again can’t solve Yordan Alvarez
Namely, that facing Yordan Alvarez right now is akin to facing Barry Bonds in his prime, when every choice facing a manager was fraught with danger and bad possibilities.
That’s not saying that Alvarez is of Bonds’ caliber, because for about a five-year stretch — and you know why — no one in baseball history, including Babe Ruth, was more fearsomely productive. In the eighth inning with the Astros clinging to a one-run lead, Mariners manager Scott Servais finally did what many had been clamoring for all along — walk Alvarez intentionally, even though it pushed base runner Jeremy Pena to second base.
HOUSTON — Everyone was thinking it, and Dusty Baker said it.
Namely, that facing Yordan Alvarez right now is akin to facing Barry Bonds in his prime, when every choice facing a manager was fraught with danger and bad possibilities. Pitch to him, don’t pitch to him, make good pitches , make bad pitches — it hardly matters. The outcome is probably going to be damaging to the goal of winning a baseball game.That’s not saying that Alvarez is of Bonds ’ caliber, because for about a five-year stretch — and you know why — no one in baseball history, including Babe Ruth, was more fearsomely productive. But it is to say that modern-day Alvarez might be the closest thing, at least this side of Aaron Judge, to an unsolvable problem.The Mariners know that all too well, which is why they are heading back to Seattle with their playoff lives dangling by a thread after Thursday’s 4-2 Astros victory.On Tuesday Alvarez throttled their hopes of stealing Game 1 of the American League Division Series with a two-out, three-run home run. And on Thursday he once again turned a late Mariners lead into an eventual Astros victory with a two-run homer off Luis Castillo in the sixth inning. And did so on a quality pitch — 98 mph, four inches off the plate — that mere mortals would have had little chance to hit, and no chance of launching out of the ballpark, even to an inviting left-field porch such as the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park.In the eighth inning with the Astros clinging to a one-run lead, Mariners manager Scott Servais finally did what many had been clamoring for all along — walk Alvarez intentionally, even though it pushed base runner Jeremy Pena to second base . Then Alex Bregman immediately showed why that strategy is far from a guarantee of success: He singled home Pena for a vital insurance run.
And that’s when Baker, the Giants’ manager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, had his Bonds flashbacks.
“Well, I thought about Barry Bonds ,” Baker said. “I mean, that was some Barry Bonds -type stuff there. I mean, that’s the ultimate respect. Bregman rises to the occasion, too. That’s why I’ve got Bregman hitting behind Yordan, because all you need in that situation is a base hit.“Yeah, that was, right away, what I thought about. I’ve seen that a bunch of times, but not in a long time since Barry Bonds .”In 2004 Bonds set a record with an astonishing 120 intentional walks, but with the likes of Edgardo Alonzo and Pedro Feliz hitting behind Bonds , it was a much easier decision. Bregman is a formidable, All-Star player who can do damage in his own right.It was a game of mounting frustrations for the Mariners, who can point to numerous moments when they just missed on chances to tack onto the 2-1 lead they took in the fourth.There was a Jarred Kelenic fly to the track with a runner aboard. There was a line drive by J.P. Crawford right at the first baseman that turned into a ninth-inning double play just before a Julio Rodriguez double. There was a great play by second base man Jose Altuve to rob Rodriguez of an RBI single, and a slicing drive by Suarez with two aboard that was run down.But what the Mariners might be lamenting most are the two times pesky No. 2 hitter Jeremy Pena got on base with two outs right before Alvarez , just as he had done Tuesday in the ninth. One came on a blooper to no-man’s land, reminiscent of Crawford’s game-changing double in Toronto, that barely eluded Rodriguez and Adam Frazier. Alvarez came up and launched the crippling, opposite-field homer on a pitch no one could quite believe he was able to handle — including the person who threw it.“I made a good pitch, right out of the zone, and he was able to make contact with it,” said Castillo, who was mostly brilliant for seven innings, through interpreter Freddy Llanos “It was surprising. It was surprising on where the pitch was. All merit to him.”If you’re wondering why Servais didn’t intentionally walk Castillo that time, well, you had your ace cruising, with electric stuff, having retired Alvarez with relative ease two times. You acquired Castillo for moments like this, and I don’t fault that decision, especially with pushing the tying run to scoring position and Bregman looming. Robbie Ray was a highly dubious choice Tuesday; this was a proper decision gone wrong, as so often happened with Bonds . It was your best against theirs; as Ty France said, that’s why they got Castillo. With Alvarez right now, all possible choices have a downside.The eighth was a different story, with Andres Munoz — who seems like he may have hit a wall — on the mound. When someone asked Servais if the earlier home run figured into his decision to walk Alvarez that time, he said sardonically, “Yeah, very perceptive.”Added Servais: “It did play into that. Obviously, he has done some damage against us in this series. He’s hot right now. You’ve got to recognize that. I think you kind of game plan in how you want to go through their lineup and the guys you want to be careful with.“When you’re throwing balls three, four inches off the plate and he hits them like that, he’s in the zone. He’s a super-talented player, and he’s made us pay here the last couple days.”No game plan for Alvarez has worked. No one took that outcome harder than catcher Cal Raleigh, who had the closest view of Alvarez ’s magic at the plate.“It makes me sick that he’s beat us two in a row single-handedly,” Raleigh said. “As a catcher you feel partially responsible. It wasn’t a terrible pitch, but that’s kind of how it goes, and how the stadium is here. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”Asked what strategy might work against Alvarez , Raleigh replied, “Just trying to make really good pitches and execute them. … He’s probably the best hitter in the league. He took advantage when he got a pitch to hit. Tip the hat.”Raleigh cogently summed up the dilemma Alvarez presents in finding a safe place to pitch him: “It’s hard. He’ll pull a ball. He’ll hit a ball the other way. And then you really don’t know where to go, because [the fence is] so short here. It’s tough pitching to him. It’s tough pitching to all those guys in this stadium. They’re a really good team, and they’ve been really good at this place.”Here’s a final twist of the knife: The Astros acquired Alvarez from the Dodgers in a 2016 trade for Josh Fields, the journeyman pitcher who had been the Mariners’ No. 1 draft pick in 2008 — and then never pitched an inning for them. Alvarez has been an ascending star in Houston since, this year hitting 37 homers and slugging .613 despite a couple stints on the disabled list because of hand injuries that limited him to 135 games. Baker calls Alvarez “Grande,” because, he said, “He comes up big.” And Baker recognizes the buzz that sweeps the ballpark when Alvarez walks to the plate.“I mean, you don’t go to the bathroom,” Baker said. “You wait. You hold it until after he hits. That was the same way with Barry Bonds . Like, you don’t talk to anybody. You just pay attention.”Rest assured the Mariners are paying rapt attention to Yordan Alvarez . And they know they had better figure out something quickly, or their season will be over.