Culture / Sporting Life

Justin Verlander Delivers a Pointed Party Message, Chas McCormick Goes Bottle Surfing & Jeremy Peña Lives His Kid Dream — Inside an 18 Inning Astros Win For the Ages and Its Long Party Aftermath

This Most Together Team Finds So Many Clutch Heroes, Including Forgotten Starter Luis Garcia

BY // 10.16.22

SEATTLE — Justin Verlander almost chases Michael Brantley right out the clubhouse doors, spraying champagne all the way, two baseball veterans in their thirties turned into kids again by one of the most  epic wins anyone will ever see. Before he and Brantley get crazy though, Verlander pulls Luis Garcia into a quieter embrace to tell the 25-year-old pitcher who could have felt forgotten this October just how monumental what he did was.

This is what makes these 2022 Astros, the only 100-plus win team still standing in these playoffs, special. And somewhat different from the previous five Astros teams that also advanced to the American League Championship Series before them. These Astros are a blend of the old and the new, the postseason celebration wise hands and relative (and sometimes complete) newcomers to the bottle spraying madness of it all.

Jeremy Peña, the rookie shortstop who turned 25 just a just a few weeks ago, decides the second 18th inning playoff game this Houston franchise has somehow played with a deep blast to left center that easily clears the wall of the Seattle Mariners’ big ballpark. It’s not a walkoff, but it might as well be with how long and hard these teams played before that first 1 joined all those zeroes on the T-Mobile Park scoreboard.

“After a while, you really don’t want to lose a game like that,” Lance McCullers Jr., the Astros starter who seemingly stopped pitching a lifetime before this game was finally decided. “You put so much into it. You use so much energy and so many pitchers and you don’t want to think about what it’d be like to have to come right back to this ballpark the next day to try to do it again.

“We really didn’t want to lose that game.”

The Astros didn’t. Thanks to Peña and Garica’s beyond brilliant work out of the bullpen and a roster full of battlers who just believe they’re going to get it done.

Someway. Somehow. Sometime.

This 1-0 18th inning Astros win takes that last one to the extreme, matching the longest baseball playoff game ever played. There now have been four 18 inning playoff games in Major League Baseball’s nearly 150 year history. Peña now joins former unlikely playoff hero Chris Burke (in that 7-6 walkoff win that pushed Houston past the Braves in the division series and towards the World Series eventually for the first time in franchise history in 2005) as Astros who’ve won playoff games with 18th inning home runs.

As he rounds first base and heads for second, pumping his fist and beginning a celebration that still hasn’t completely ended this morning, Peña isn’t thinking about that. He’s just living his dream, really living every baseball obsessed kid in the world’s dream.

Only Peña doesn’t have to wake up from this.

“It’s what you dream about as a kid,” Peña says in the craziness of the clubhouse party, somehow still seeming cool, calm and collected with all the champagne dousing, screaming and even bottle bin surfing (that would be enthusiastic outfielder Chas McCormick withering around in a big blue recycle bin of empty bottles as his teammates super spray him again and again) going on all around him.

Yordan Alvarez’s power may have once again captivated the baseball world, but Jeremy Peña is just as big a part of this 3-0 division series sweep of a dangerous Seattle team.

So is Luis Garcia, who came into this game with no clue or certainty on when he’d pitch again. Garcia is the fifth or sixth starter in the Astros’ dominant rotation, part of the deepest pitching staff in all of the Big Leagues. Garcia knew he wouldn’t get the chance to start in this series, but when Astros manager Dusty Baker finally called on him in the 14th inning, he was more than ready.

Garcia pitched the game of his life out of the bullpen, putting together five brilliant innings of two hit, six strikeout baseball. The man from Venezuela who always seems to be smiling handled the tensest and most fraught situation ever with the ease of a dude on a Sunday stroll.

Danger? What danger!

“You think about it your whole life. Whether it’s ALDS. World Series. Whatever you want to call it. I call it nut cutter time.” — Astros rookie pitcher Hunter Brown

While the Mariners needed their 21-year-old franchise player Julio Rodriquez to make a great play in center to chase down a Yuli Gurriel bullet and rob the Astros of a chance to win it in the 16th inning, Seattle never can even mount a threat once Garcia comes into the game.

Which is why so many of his teammates seek him out after this six hour and 22 minute game that turned early afternoon into one glorious Astros night.

“That’s why I made a point to pull him aside and tell him how special what he did was,” Verlander says of Garcia. “That’s not easy to do — and it gave this team such a huge lift. I just wanted him to know how much what he did meant.”

Houston Astros faced the Los Angeles Dodgers and pitcher Trevor Bauer in game two of a series at Minute Maid Park
Luis Garcia has gone from playoff afterthought to an essential Astros hero. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Putting up 18 scoreless innings — 18 zeroes (six from McCullers, one each from Hector Neris, Rafael Montero, Ryan Pressly, Ryne Stanek, and Bryan Abreu, two from rookie phenom Hunter Brown and those last five from Garcia) — is the ultimate testament to the best pitching staff in baseball. It’s this group’s David sculpture, even more impressive than that combined no hitter in Yankees Stadium.

Because of how much pressure there is in Seattle’s smoky air. Because of the playoff stage and what it means going forward. Because of how many different pitchers are involved (that’d be a Magnificent Eight).

“It shows how many gamers and great pitchers we have,” McCullers says. “Everybody just pulls for each other and wants everyone to do well. There’s no egos. We don’t care who’s the hero as long as we win.”

The Astros Postgame Celebration

That togetherness comes through in one of the wilder division series clinching parties of this golden era of Houston Astros baseball too. There’s Framber Valdez, the quality start king, dancing his way to the team photo, drawing hoots and hollers from his teammates. There’s Core Astro Alex Bregman and trade pickup catcher Christian Vazquez sliding on the grass one after the other to get into the photo.

There’s Hunter Brown, the rookie from Michigan who grew up idolizing Verlander, spraying as much bubbly and Budweiser as anyone.

“You think about it your whole life,” the 24-year-old Brown says. “Whether it’s ALDS. World Series. Whatever you want to call it. I call it nut cutter time.

“It’s time to go. And those are the moments that you live for. And with these guys, this team, you want to compete for them.”

Young, old, new to the big stage or tested and proven again and again, these 2022 Houston Astros just keep coming together. Overwhelming teams as one.

“This is why every single person in this room wakes up every morning and comes to compete,” Bregman says. “And comes to the office ready to go.”

Of course, you probably don’t get to turn your office into a mosh pit of champagne mayhem after a particularly good week on the job. The Astros know they’re living the dream. But it’s their resolute dedication to it that makes getting it done possible.

Someway. Somehow. Sometime. The Astros get it done.

“We really want to win the World Series this year,” Garcia says, grinning (as usual). “And if we keep playing like this, I think we have a really good chance.”

Lance McCullers Astros celebration
Lance McCullers Jr/ knows that postseason celebrations never get old. (@Astros)

The Astros and Mariners battle though 18 tense, taxing and sometimes excruciating scoreless innings of baseball with 18 total hits and a record 42 strikeouts along the way. It’s still 0-0 heading into the bottom of the 10th after Jeremy Pena, Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman go down one, two, three and the Mariners follow suit, setting an early tone for how these extra innings will play out.

Seattle’s first playoff home game in 21 years needs someone to remind everyone that scoring is allowed in baseball.

From brilliant sunlight to glaring afternoon shadows to early evening dusk, the first signs of night and the falling of real dark, this game just stays 0-0. Inning after inning after inning.

Mariners fans stand throughout almost the entire game, waving their aqua-colored towels, trying to somehow will at least one win over the Astros out of the home team. Some 47,690 pack into one of the best ballparks in America, make the lines to the souvenir team shops look like they are concert queues.

The Pacific Northwest definitely has Mariners fever. But they’re runless in Seattle.

The New York Yankees and Cleveland Guardians game started four hours after Mariners-Astros and there was still a run scored in Cleveland before anyone crossed the plate in Seattle. In fact, there are eight runs scored in that game with it still 0-0 in T-Mobile Park. Eight.

This game features a 14th inning stretch — a ballpark wide Beasties Boys serenade — and four and a 1/2 more innings after that.

People are going to remember this baseball game for a long time, for better and for worse, on both sides.

Someway. Somehow. Sometime. The Astros get it done.

“Eighteen zeroes,” Hunter Brown tells PaperCity. “Luis goes out there and he basically has a start in the later innings.”

“Woo hoo hoo hoo! Hoo!” Brown interrupts himself, shivering as veteran catcher Martin Maldonado pours some more champagne right over his head.

“We trust in these guys man,” Brown picks almost right back up. “Everyone believes in one another. Everyone believes in themselves. And I think today was a great example of that.”

“After a while, you really don’t want to lose a game like that. You put so much into it. You use so much energy and so many pitchers and you don’t want to think about what it’d be like to have to come right back to this ballpark the next day to try to do it again.” — Astros starter Lance McCullers Jr.

It’s a day turned night turned morning again that will end with Dusty Baker, the Astros’ 73-year-old baseball lifer of a manager who is still cool enough to keep everyone else calm, getting doused with as much champagne as anyone. Maybe more. Valdez gets Dusty at least three or four times just himself.

It will end with Verlander chasing after Brantley, the man nicknamed Uncle Mike’s presence and importance in this clubhouse having been anything but forgotten with him too injured to play these playoffs.

Verlander will spend a large chunk of an epic game’s aftermath watching the newer guys and the newest guys playoff party like it’s their first time. Because it is for them.

“I really enjoy watching, especially the young guys,” Verlander says. “The guys that are — I don’t want to say new to this, it never gets old — but like Hunter Brown tonight. Kid came up late. Did what he did in this series and had an integral role in tonight’s game and helped us clinch. . .

“No better feeling in the world.”

Someway. Somehow. Sometime. The Astros get it done.

Together, battling as one.

Part of the Special Series:

PaperCity - Astros Playoffs