'That's baseball': Astros stunned late after seesaw battle

September 19th, 2023

HOUSTON -- With a chance to pad their lead atop the American League West and reduce their magic number to clinch the division to single digits, the Astros were instead left to digest a crushing loss to the Orioles on Monday night at Minute Maid Park.

Cedric Mullins cranked a three-run home run to right field with one out in the top of the ninth inning to send Baltimore to a seesaw 8-7 win over the Astros, who find themselves clinging to a 1 1/2-game lead over both the Rangers and Mariners with 11 games remaining in the regular season.

  • Games remaining (11): vs. BAL (2), vs. KC (3), at SEA (3), at AZ (3)
  • Standings update: The Astros (84-67) lead the AL West by 1 1/2 games over the Rangers (82-68), who lost to the Red Sox on Monday, and 1 1/2 games over the Mariners (82-68), who beat the A’s. The Astros hold the season tiebreaker against the Rangers, but not the Mariners.
  • Magic number to clinch AL West: 10

As far as bad losses go, this is one that might come back to haunt the Astros, who’ve lost five of their past seven games and fell to 38-38 at home this year. Houston has lost 15 of its past 18 at Minute Maid Park.

“It was devastating, but you’ve got to get over it,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You can’t bring it back. That hurt a lot.”

The Astros led, 7-5, going to the ninth and handed the ball to closer Ryan Pressly, who was pitching for the first time since Wednesday. Pressly struck out Adley Rutschman to start the frame before one-out singles by Ryan O’Hearn and Austin Hays set up Mullins to play the role of hero.

Mullins turned on a 2-1 slider down in the zone and rocketed it a Statcast-projected 425 feet over the right-field wall. Pressly gave the ball a brief glance as it sailed into the air before looking away. Houston fell to 74-5 this season when leading after eight innings.

“My stuff was good,” Pressly said. “It’s a well-located pitch. I’m sure he was sitting on it. He got his pitch he wanted to hit and took advantage of it.”

Pressly said most batters would have rolled the pitch over.

“[Mullins] just went down and got it,” he said.

The Astros, whose home struggles at the plate this year prompted the club to extend the batter's eye in center field toward right-center field over the weekend, had one run through five innings before scoring four in the sixth to take a 5-3 lead, capped by a two-run double by Jose Altuve.

“You just feel like we’re about to break out of it,” Baker said. “We are close. We’re hitting some balls hard and not getting as much to show for it as we like. The positive thing is we scored seven runs tonight. We could have scored 10 or 12.”

After Astros reliever Rafael Montero allowed a pair of runs in the seventh to tie the game, José Abreu clubbed a 425-foot home run to center field off Orioles reliever Danny Coulombe in the bottom of the inning to put Houston ahead, and catcher Martín Maldonado blasted a solo homer in the eighth for a 7-5 lead. The Astros stranded the tying run on third in the ninth.

“We had action in the ninth,” Baker said. “We just didn’t get that run home. That was a tough loss. Pressly hadn’t thrown in a few days, but he was throwing the ball good. He just hung the slider on Mullins, who hurt us a couple of years ago on a homer late like that.”

Justin Verlander allowed three runs and eight hits in six innings for the Astros and lamented a bloop two-out, two-run single by O’Hearn (5-for-5) in the fifth inning that put Baltimore ahead, 3-1. Houston is 5-4 in Verlander’s nine starts since he was traded from the Mets in July, with Verlander posting a 3.93 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in 55 innings with the Astros.

“They have a good lineup,” Verlander said. “Guys put together good at-bats. That’s baseball sometimes. You make a good pitch and a guy puts it in the right spot. Obviously, it’s frustrating in the moment. That's not one of those pitches when I go home tonight that will keep me up.”

The velocity was down on Verlander's fastball and curveball by about one-half mph, which he said was probably the result of some mechanical adjustments. 

“I thought the location was really good,” he said. “It seemed like the stuff was decent -- not a ton of great swings. [Gunnar] Henderson, obviously, took a couple, but other than that, it seemed like they were off-balance quite a bit. Obviously a tough one to lose. Wish I could take those two runs back that [fifth] inning. That’s baseball.”