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Inside a wild Division Series weekend

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SEATTLE — As Saturday was just beginning, fans thirsty for playoff baseball and hungry for Seattle dogs — hot dog, cream cheese, sauteed onions — were already snaking around T-Mobile Park in anticipation of what was to come. The Seattle Mariners were down 2-0 in their American League Division Series against the Houston Astros, an obstacle only one in 10 teams historically have overcome. And yet that fact did nothing to dissuade those lined up from believing they were about to witness something memorable. Two decades of postseason absence can normalize a sense of pessimism, but Seattle fans preferred on Saturday to be dreamers, to embrace the special sort of magic this sport lives to foment.

“Baseball’s just a really funny game,” Trey Mancini said about nine hours later, headed for a bus that would begin the Astros’ journey home for their sixth straight AL Championship Series. What had occurred in the time since was a one-of-a-kind game: 6 hours, 22 minutes, with 42 strikeouts against four walks, where hits were sparse and runs nonexistent until the 18th inning, when a rookie whacked a home run to win it.

Mancini is 30, in his sixth year in the majors. He lived through the leanest of lean years with the Baltimore Orioles and came to the Astros at the trade deadline. He has beaten cancer. He knows that “funny” can mean the sad-funny of rebuilding or the we-really-don’t-know-anything funny of this division series weekend, and particularly of Saturday, when across the country four games of varying incarnations played out in what would be the last busy day of the baseball calendar this season. Mancini loves the game because of days like Saturday.

As this weekend’s division series proved, baseball in October is something different. It’s not always about who’s better. Sometimes what matters is who happens to get hot. It’s not just unpredictable; it’s unknowable, capable of rendering itself at any moment.

Take, for instance, the game Mancini played for eight innings and watched for 10 as a spectator after being lifted for a pinch hitter. It embodied the excellence of modern run prevention, with a paucity of baserunners, a surfeit of strikeouts and unshakeable defense. Was it so pretty it got a little ugly, or so stingy it was beautiful, or something along the continuum instead? No one knew for sure. No one cared, either.

“It’s wild how the lines get blurred so much in games like that,” said Astros reliever Ryne Stanek, marveling at how similar the Astros’ 1-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners was to the Cleveland Guardians‘ win last week by the same score in the clincher of their wild-card series against the Tampa Bay Rays. “I saw it in the Rays-Cleveland game, where they were talking about how when things get rolling like that, it just seems to almost stay [like that] — like it’s inertia, just kind of stays in motion.”

Perhaps that’s just a post-facto explanation, the easiest way to organize the game’s chaos and understand how two teams like Houston and Seattle — one offensively elite and the other capable of homering with the best — can find themselves locked in a game that sucks away your breath and replaces it with tension, nerves, anxiety — feelings, the sort of feelings that permeated from the dugout into the stands all the way across the Pacific Northwest. The feelings that resonated 1,000 miles away in San Diego, only with a twist: from dread to elation, in almost an instant.

“Hitting really is contagious,” Mancini said, an hour before the San Diego Padres would enter the seventh inning of their National League Division Series-clinching win against their rival, the Los Angeles Dodgers, down 3-0. They then recorded a walk, single, single, double, single, strikeout, popout, single — five runs in all.

This is postseason baseball: A team like San Diego — missing its superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and short enough on rotation depth that its choices for a potential Game 5 starter against the Dodgers were bad, worse and nightmare — vanquished a 111-win team to whom it lost all six series this season with a 5-3 victory.

All the way across the country, in Philadelphia, another team with a tortured recent history like Seattle’s and San Diego’s had engaged in its own hit parade, going single, hit-by-pitch, single, single, single to push a tight game into comfortable territory. No lead is truly comfortable against the Atlanta Braves, but the Philadelphia Phillies are just like the Padres, puffing out their chests after their domination and defeat of a Braves team that over 162 games had finished 14 ahead of the Phillies.

This is October baseball: Five wins in six games for a team that was so bad its manager was fired midseason and so good it won nine straight immediately after. From that point on, Philly played at a 90-win pace, which is nobody’s idea of championship caliber, except for the fact that seven teams with 90 or fewer wins have won rings, including last year’s 88-win Atlanta unit.

October baseball entrances even Astros players, celebrating in the afterglow of their clinching win, enough to put down their bottles of bubbly and pause their party to watch. In Cleveland, the Guardians trailed the New York Yankees by a run. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The bases were loaded. A rookie named Oscar Gonzalez was at the plate. His walk-up music is the theme to “SpongeBob SquarePants.” He had already hit the walk-off home run that provided the one run in Cleveland’s aforementioned 1-0 win against Tampa Bay, as well as the go-ahead swing on a blooper in Game 2 against the Yankees.

When Gonzalez lined a single up the middle to plate the tying and winning runs, the lunchroom in the back of the Astros’ clubhouse erupted in screams. Some of the Astros loathe the Yankees just for being the Yankees, and others were taken by the moment itself, regardless of who won or lost. These men know as well as anyone just how precious October victories are, how days like Saturday — when every game is a treat of varying flavors — are magic.

The Astros, amid two upsets and the Yankees facing a winner-take-all Game 5 in the Bronx on Monday night, are the exception.

They won 106 games and the top seed in the AL, and, after five days off, swept their first series against the Mariners, coming from behind in the first two wins and grinding through two games’ worth of innings to capture the third. This group of playoff-tested veterans relied on a rookie, Jeremy Peña, to provide the lone run in the clincher. He took a slider from another rookie, Seattle right-hander Penn Murfee, and deposited it over the center-field wall, sucking the oxygen out of a stadium that had spent most of the day deprived of it thanks to the hyperventilation games like this invite.

“It’s just intense, like — you feel it,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “You feel every pitch [that] one pitch could swing it.” And nauseating and stomach-turning though that may be, Bregman said, “People in our clubhouse feed on it. We love it.”

This is one of the many things that makes the Astros great. This might be their best team yet. Even if the offense isn’t quite as dangerous as their teams with George Springer and Carlos Correa, Houston’s pitching is world class — from Lance McCullers Jr. spinning six shutout innings to start Game 3 to Luis Garcia booking five scoreless to end it and a parade of six relievers in between throwing up zeroes.

Yes, their lone championship came in the season during which they used a sign-stealing scheme to cheat. But by the end of the ALCS, Houston will have played in at least 80 playoff games over the past six years. It is more than any team ever in a six-year span, and while that certainly can be attributed to playoff expansion, outdoing the dynastic Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s as well as the 2016-21 Dodgers puts the Astros in rarified company among their modern peers.

They’ve played so many postseason games that when Jose Altuve calls Game 3 “the craziest we’ve played,” he needs to pause for a moment and think that through. It’s easy, in the moment, to assign fantastical adjectives to a game that just ended, even to a day like Saturday, but it’s understandable, too.

Baseball really is a funny game, right? It sends us on rides for which the blueprint need only be a win-expectancy chart, in which calmness cedes to commotion in an instant — up and down, revolting one minute and life-affirming the next. It is the best, and then it is the worst, and maybe again the best, and that’s the fun of it. We never know what it’s going to be, which is precisely what keeps us coming back for more.

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