Peña’s 18th-inning HR sends Astros past Mariners for sweep

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports
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SEATTLE – Jeremy Pena homered in the 18th inning, and the Houston Astros beat the Seattle Mariners 1-0 on Saturday to advance to the AL Championship Series for the sixth straight year.

Pena drove a slider from Penn Murfee deep to left-center for the rookie shortstop’s first playoff homer, providing the only run in an afternoon full of dominant pitching and empty trips to the plate. The 18 innings matched the longest game in playoff history.

“Man, that was a long game. But you still got to lock in, try to put together good at-bats,” Pena said. “I was just trying to stay inside the baseball, drove it in the gap.”

Spoiling Seattle’s first home playoff appearance since 2001, Houston completed a three-game sweep of the ALDS. Next up is the New York Yankees or Cleveland Guardians in Game 1 of the ALCS on Wednesday.

While Yordan Alvarez got the big hits in the first two games in Houston, it was Pena that set the table for Alvarez’s opportunities. As Game 3 made its way into its sixth hour, Pena delivered another painful blow to the Mariners that ended their short return to the postseason.

After 21 years, Seattle fans welcomed playoff baseball back inside T-Mobile Park. They got their money’s worth, and then some.

Three previous playoff games reached the 18th inning before conclusion, one involving Houston. The Astros beat the Atlanta Braves 7-6 in 18 innings in Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS on Chris Burke’s game-ending homer.

Game 2 of the 2014 NLDS between San Francisco and Washington and Game 3 of the 2018 World Series between Los Angeles and Boston also went 18 innings.

But those games had runs. This one failed to produce anything until Pena’s swing on a 3-2 pitch.

“I feel like in the playoffs you can’t try and do too much, especially the later the game goes,” Pena said.

Seattle’s best scoring chance was Julio Rodriguez’s line drive that thudded off the wall in the eighth inning. Seattle had runners in scoring position in the 13th and 17th, but couldn’t get a key two-out hit against Houston’s superb bullpen.

Unlike baseball’s regular season, there is no automatic runner when playoff games go to extra innings.

Luis Garcia worked five innings for the win. The Astros bullpen allowed five hits and struck out 15 following six innings from starter Lance McCullers Jr.

“Watching the whole thing the guys are doing a really good job and I’m really proud of them. … I was just trying to help,” Garcia said.

Seattle’s bullpen was nearly just as good. After rookie George Kirby threw seven innings, nine Mariners relievers combined for 11 innings of five-hit ball.

The teams combined to strike out 42 times, topping the postseason record of 39 set by the Guardians and Rays last week in their AL wild-card matchup that was scoreless for 15 innings before Oscar Gonzalez’s home run sent Cleveland to the ALDS.

“Their pitching was phenomenal today as well. We kept putting the zero up there and kept putting the zero up there and you think we’re going to be able to break through because we have so many times,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “It’s kind of what we’re accustomed to playing – those tight games and finding a way but there were no errors made in that game today.”

Houston advanced despite a rough performance for Jose Altuve, who went 0 for 8 in Game 3 for the first time in his career and was hitless in 16 at-bats in the series.

Altuve joined Xander Bogaerts in Game 3 of 2018 World Series versus the Dodgers as only players to go 0 for 8 or worse in a postseason game. But Houston’s other pieces came through, none bigger than its young shortstop who took on a prominent role after Carlos Correa departed in free agency.

Pena’s homer was his only hit in eight at-bats. But it was his contributions in the first two games that helped Houston travel to Seattle with a 2-0 lead in the series.

For Mariners fans, watching the drama play out was an agonizing swing of emotions and nerves for the better part of the 6 hours and 22 minutes.

Lines snaked outside the entrance hours before first pitch. Half the stadium appeared filled 90 minutes before Seattle took the field and all seats were occupied when Felix Hernandez walked out from center field to throw out a ceremonial first pitch to a deafening ovation.

The energy and noise that accompanied two decades of anticipation was pure exhilaration at the start, but turned more and more nervous the longer zeros stayed on the scoreboard. By the time the 14th-inning stretch was celebrated nearing the five-hour mark, those fans were on the verge of exhaustion and ready for finality.

It didn’t come until four innings later and was a disappointing conclusion after two decades of waiting.

KING RETURNS

Hernandez spent 15 seasons with the Mariners but never had the opportunity of pitching in the postseason. Hernandez won 169 games and had a career 3.42 ERA, last pitching for Seattle in 2019.

SMOKEY AIR

Seattle’s return to the postseason was played with a smoky haze and terrible air quality engulfing the Puget Sound region. A shift in winds and wildfire still smoldering in the Cascade Mountains created a dingy haze above T-Mobile Park. The air quality index in Seattle at first pitch registered at 161.

Brian Cashman signs 4-year contract to remain Yankees GM

Lucas Peltier-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — Brian Cashman has signed a four-year contract to remain the New York Yankees Senior Vice President and General Manager. The announcement was made during the first day of baseball’s Winter Meetings.

Cashman, New York’s GM since 1998, had been working on a handshake agreement since early November, when his five-year contract expired.

The Yankees were swept by four games in the AL Championship Series and haven’t reached the World Series since winning in 2009. It is the franchise’s longest title drought since an 18-year gap between 1978-96.

Cashman’s main goal during the offseason is trying to re-sign AL MVP Aaron Judge.

Judge hit an American League-record 62 homers this season with a .311 batting average and 131 RBIs. He turned down the Yankees’ offer on the eve of opening day of a seven-year contract that would have paid $213.5 million from 2023-29.

While Judge remains on the market, Cashman was able to re-sign Anthony Rizzo on Nov. 15 to a two-year contract worth $40 million after turning down a $16 million player option.

Cashman has been the Yankees general manager since 1998. He has been with the organization since 1986, when he was a 19-year old intern in the scouting department. In his 25 seasons as GM, the Yankees have reached the postseason 21 times, including four World Series championships and six American League titles.