SEATTLE — The zeros on the T-Mobile Park scoreboard, which lasted into the 18th inning Saturday, did not reflect boredom and inaction. Those were little circles of stress, containing 6 hours 22 minutes of playoff baseball tension, the weight of an elimination game that the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners carried into deep exhaustion on an abnormally smoky October afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.
For the first time in 21 years, the Mariners hosted a postseason game, and it seemed like 21 more years would pass before it concluded. Then, at 7:12 p.m. Pacific time, more than six hours after the first pitch, Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña hit a four-seam fastball from Seattle reliever Penn Murfee over the fence in left-center. A run, finally. For the Mariners, it would signal the conclusion of a resurgent season that they fought for as long as possible not to see end. And for the Astros, playoff regulars who continue to prosper, that persistence was about to be rewarded with a sixth straight appearance in the American League Championship Series.
With its 1-0 victory, Houston completed a three-game division series sweep by the thinnest of margins. Over the past decade, the Astros have won bigger games on bigger stages. They have endured plenty, including their own shame. But for a championship-caliber team that just won’t go away, this 18-inning triumph symbolized an undervalued part of why they endure as a contender.
“This is some team,” Manager Dusty Baker said afterward. “These guys, they grind and grind and grind, and sooner or later, they break through.”
They needed to play a game that matched the longest postseason contest in Major League Baseball history, but they advanced. It was just the fourth time a playoff game had gone 18 innings. The teams combined to use 18 pitchers, throw 498 pitches and strike out 42 batters while issuing only four walks. The lineups combined for only 18 hits. Mariners starter George Kirby and Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr. set the tone. Kirby, a rookie making his first postseason start, threw seven innings and allowed six hits. He was able to stay composed during fidgety situations, and he stranded seven Astros. McCullers allowed just two hits and two walks over six innings.
After Julio Rodríguez flied out to center field to end it, the Astros huddled near the pitcher’s mound and shared hugs. Some of them probably needed the embraces to stay upright.
“I’m tired,” Peña said. “That was a long game.”
For all that Houston has won over the years, winning this way still felt like a big deal. Everything about this sweep was difficult. In Houston, the Astros delivered heartache to the Mariners in the first two games, seemingly breaking their spirit by rallying from a four-run deficit in the final two innings of an 8-7 victory in Game 1 on Tuesday and then outlasting Seattle during a 4-2 triumph Thursday. In both games, Yordan Alvarez hit a game-winning home run, the first a devastating three-run walk-off shot against Robbie Ray, the 2021 Cy Young Award winner who had made a surprise appearance out of the bullpen to try to close the game.
In all three games of the series, Peña played a key role in the decisive innings. Before the season, the rookie shortstop replaced a long-standing star, Carlos Correa, who left for Minnesota in free agency. He played well in the regular season and earned Baker’s trust. The manager sensed he had the poise and approach to come through in clutch postseason situations. But he couldn’t have known he would shine like this.
On Saturday, Peña was hitless in his first seven at-bats. But when he came to the plate for the eighth time, he was ready.
“You could tell by the brightness in his eyes, the alertness that he has, that he would be ready,” Baker said. “He wasn’t scared or fazed. He’s been a godsend for us after we lost Carlos. It could’ve been a disastrous situation.”
Two pitches — and two prodigious swings by Alvarez — kept Houston from being another favorite to find trouble early in a postseason that has been harsh for the best regular season teams. And then a third powerful swing, this time from Peña, sent them back to the ALCS. The Astros embraced the challenge and the discomfort. Before a crowd of 47,690 in Seattle, they didn’t just face a hungry, raucous audience. They were on trial for their old cheating sins again.
“This team is probably as prepared as any,” Baker said before the game, “[after] all of the boos and scorn we’ve had the last three years.”
It’s quite the task, going pitch for pitch and situation for situation with the Astros. They have seen it all by now. They have been it all, too: champions, cheaters, resilient winners, oh-so-close also-rans. They have forced you to hate them, tempted you to admire them and made you fear them. This is their sixth straight playoff appearance and seventh in the past eight seasons. They have won a World Series and finished runner-up two other times. They have advanced at least as far as the ALCS every year since 2017.
The sign-stealing scandal tarnished their success, but their run has lasted so long — and they have continued winning at the same level since being exposed — that it isn’t fair to ignore all they have accomplished as fraudulent. There is no dismissing them. There is no rattling them. You have to beat them, and sometimes that means outlasting every bit of them.
Pitching and defense couldn’t make up for all that Game 3 lacked in offense. As the scoreless anxiety ventured into extra innings, the experience went from riveting to exhausting. Hitters stopped grinding through at-bats and tried to end it with one swing. The game’s first three hours included enough high-pressure moments for edge-of-your-seat fascination, but even as the teams went deep into their bullpens, the threat of offense diminished. The Astros weren’t rattled.
“People are discounting experience sometimes, not just in baseball — in the world,” Baker said.
Peña had no experience. It didn’t matter. By the end of the night, it seemed he had been with the Astros the whole time.