SEATTLE -- All it took for the Astros to get back on track was a change of scenery -- in addition to a dominating pitching performance from Justin Verlander and mighty swings of the bat from Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker.
After dropping five of their last six games to finish with a losing record at home and fall out of first place in the American League West, the Astros flexed their road muscle behind a gem from Verlander and homers from Alvarez and Tucker to blast the Mariners, 5-1, in Monday’s series opener at T-Mobile Park.
“Incredible,” Alvarez said of Verlander. “That’s obviously what this team needed. He knew that, and going out there and putting the team in that type of position was great.”
- Games remaining (5): at SEA (2), at AZ (3)
- Standings update: The Astros (86-71) are in second place in the American League West, 2 1/2 games behind the Rangers (88-68), who beat the Angels on Monday. Seattle (84-72) fell to 1 1/2 games behind Houston for the third and final AL Wild Card spot. The Astros hold the season tiebreaker against the Rangers, but not the Mariners.
Verlander held the Mariners to three hits and one run and struck out eight batters in eight-plus innings, sending down 16 batters in a row before a leadoff double in the ninth spoiled his shutout bid. His 256th career win tied him with Andy Pettitte for 42nd all-time.
“I was running on fumes a little bit,” he said. “But I appreciate the chance to go out there and get a CG, [shutout]. It didn’t work out, but that’s all right.”
Mariners ace Luis Castillo, who had gone 8-0 in 12 starts since his most recent loss on July 14, was tagged for three runs in the second inning on RBI hits by Mauricio Dubón, Martín Maldonado and Jose Altuve. The Astros nearly stranded José Abreu at third after a leadoff triple before Dubón’s two-out single got the ball rolling against Castillo.
“[If] we let him off the hook right there, who knows?” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You might not get any the rest [of the game]. That was our best scoring opportunity up to that point. That was huge.”
Alvarez rocketed a Statcast-projected 439-foot home run to right field to lead off the third, and Tucker led off the sixth with a homer to make it 5-0. That was more than enough for Verlander, who mixed his slider and curveball beautifully behind his fastball.
“The season, in general, has been a bit of a grind for me, all the way back to the beginning,” Verlander said. “It started with an injury and never quite finding my mechanics and working hard. This is just one of those years where nothing’s been easy. Maybe I’ll catch the right timing here and this could be a good start of something, hopefully.”
The key moment for Verlander came in the third, when the Mariners loaded the bases with one out for Julio Rodríguez. Verlander got Seattle's star outfielder to hit into a 6-4-3 double play, quashing the rally and beginning a stretch in which he sent down 16 batters in a row through the end of the eighth inning.
"He mixed his pitches very well today,” Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford said. “He had us off-balance. Usually, we go in with a certain plan and he did a good job adjusting today. ... We were just a big hit away from getting back into the game and the momentum shifting. And after that, it's tough to get going with a pitcher like that. Like I said, he had everything working tonight. He just had his off our toes."
At 91 pitches, Verlander had a shot for his first shutout since he threw his third career no-hitter on Sept. 1, 2019, for the Astros against the Blue Jays, but a leadoff double in the ninth by Josh Rojas ended that bid.
Verlander’s final regular-season start will likely come this weekend in Arizona in what could be another pivotal game for Houston.
“Here we are with our destiny still in our hands, ultimately that’s where you want to be,” he said. “You would like to be able to win the division. That’s still not out of the realm of possibility, but I know this team -- as you’ve seen when we went to Texas [in early September], and hopefully today and the remainder of this series -- when it’s time to turn it on, we know how to play that type of baseball, and we do it really well. No matter what, if we get there, I love these guys and I love our chances, and we’ll see what happens.”