Tucker’s walk-off 'a relief' as Astros sweep

Maldonado celebrates 34th birthday with RBI, SB, 2 CS

August 16th, 2020

Astros left fielder abruptly ended Sunday's matinee against Seattle with a towering home run to right field with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning. With that, the Astros beat the Mariners again, this time 3-2, at Minute Maid Park to extend their winning streak to four games, the longest of the season.

“We’re playing pretty good ball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “You know, low-scoring, one-run games. A lot of that has to do with fundamentals when you win those games. Also, defense and your bullpen give you a chance to win.”

To get Tucker to home plate with the game tied 2-2 required contributions from almost every corner of the clubhouse. That's what the Astros took away in their 24th victory in 26 games against the Mariners since the start of 2019, including six of seven in '20. The club also advanced to 11-10 to get back over .500 after losing six of seven earlier this month.

Starting pitcher pitched into the sixth inning, allowing two runs and registering six of his season-high seven strikeouts on a curveball that he said was his best of the season. Baker then turned the 2-2 game over to his rookie relievers, and this is where the Astros are growing day by day, as Baker figures out who he can trust.

On Sunday, he got seven outs from Andre Scrubb, Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor. Closer Ryan Pressly followed with a hitless ninth to give Tucker an opportunity to end it in the bottom of the inning.

Tucker began the day hitting .192/.234/.329 and fighting himself in all sorts of ways. So, when Mariners reliever Erik Swanson gave Tucker a fastball that caught too much of the plate, the Astros were excited to cheer Tucker with a socially-distanced celebration.

“It was more of a relief for me,” Tucker said. “I put a good swing on a ball for the first time in a while, it seems. You know, hitting the ball hard to first base 10 times in a row, that's not good, even though you're hitting it hard.”

Yet the unsung hero of the day was catcher Martín Maldonado, who celebrated his 34th birthday by filling up the box score with two singles and an RBI, two caught-stealing plays at second base and his third career stolen base.

"He’s a pleasant guy to be around, and he enjoys playing,” Baker said. “I didn’t know this is his third [career] stolen base, because he [asked] me the other day why I didn’t give him the steal sign because it'd be his first [in the AL]. That was a heck of a birthday present.”

Maldonado’s other two steals came in the National League, most recently on Aug. 5, 2016, while playing for the Brewers. His 15 RBIs lead the Astros and are the most among AL catchers, and his 15 RBIs in the first 21 games is an Astros record for catchers.

But it was throwing out Mariners baserunners in the first and seventh innings that highlighted the real gift he brings to every team he's played for.

“That’s the part of the game I love,” Maldonado said. “That’s something I take a lot of pride in. Last year, when I came here, I felt I didn’t throw the ball as well as I normally do. I did some little bit of adjustment to be more consistent.”

As for McCullers, he was in trouble only in the third inning, when he hit Evan White to lead off the frame, gave up two runs, including an RBI single that went by first baseman Yuli Gurriel.

What he’ll take away from the game was that his curveball resembled the nearly unhittable version he had in 2016, marking another step in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“It's the last pitch I threw during my TJ rehab,” McCullers said. “I think I just started trusting it more today and having a little more confidence.”

McCullers lobbied Baker to let him get the final out of the sixth, then he watched the rookie relievers get the game into the ninth to put Tucker in position to win it.

“Quite amazed with this young bullpen we have,” McCullers said. “They’ve just been unbelievable.”