Friday, May 22, 2015

Comings and Goings: Sept 2014 onward (May edition)

This list will be periodically updated over the course of what is likely to be a busy 2015 season.  The Astros will be trying to position themselves for contention, and 2015 likely represents the last chance for some long-ish tenured Astros.  I may have missed someone - please feel free to discuss and mention below in the comments.

Since the end of the 2014 regular season, the Astros have seen the following players enter or exit the organisation.  Some of the exits remain with the organisation, but are considered exits because they were outrighted off the 40-man.

Enter:

Angel Baez, P, Mar 2015.  Minor league pitcher traded from the Royals organisation for cash considerations.  He is 24, spent last season in AA-ball, striking out a few (10.3K/9) with walking about half as many (4.2BB/9).  Not on 40-man.  Ticketed for Fresno or Corpus.

Akeem Bostick, SP, Jan 2015.  Acquired in the trade of Carlos Corporan - a reasonable haul for a backup catcher who had been DFA'd.  A long way from making any contributions - will start the season in the low minors, or perhaps even short-season ball.

Fausto Carmona, SP, Feb 2015.  See Hernandez, Roberto.

Hank Conger, C, Nov 2015.  Traded by the Angels to the Astros early in the offseason for another backup catcher and some young SP depth.  Conger and Castro have really similar minor-league hitting numbers, and both Castro and Conger match up well in a platoon with Max Stassi, so most observers seemed to think that another move involving Jason Castro was soon to occur.  But nope, Castro and Conger are opening 2015 in a job-share at this stage.

Harlen Florencio, P, Dec 2015.  Aged 19, from the Dominican Republic.  No organised ball in the US as yet.  Signed as a free agent.

Evan Gattis, DH, Jan 2015.  Traded from the Braves for a handful of mid-level Astros prospects.  Power-hitting righty seems like a candidate to fill one of the offensive black-holes in LF or 1B.  The Astros are hoping for an improvement in his overall numbers because he is no longer expected to squat behind the dish 160-odd times per night.  Comes with 4 years of team control, so may slot into DH if Chris Carter leaves for whatever reason.

Luke Gregerson, RP, Dec 2014.  Signed as a FA for a very reasonable 3-year contract.  Gregerson was arguably the third best RP available, but the first to sign with the Astros after they offered competitive contracts to Andrew Miller and David Robertson.  Solid 'pen addition.  Possibly recruited by A.J. Hinch, with whom he has spent time with while in San Diego.

Jandal Gustave, RP, Dec 2015.  Was claimed in the Rule 5 draft in late 2014, but was returned from San Diego after being claimed by the Red Sox and traded to the Royals.  Now in Corpus.  So, has been moved from "exit" to "enter".

Will Harris, RP, Nov 2014.  Claimed off waivers in early November by Arizona.  Some really interesting numbers - including his age (29) - but he seems like a guy with good peripherals who has pitched in tough pitcher's parks (Arizona and Colorado), so he could be poised for a breakout.  The early 2015 results seem to indicate that he has broken out, as predicted in this column prior to the season.

Roberto Hernandez, SP, Feb 2015.  Signed as an XX(B) free-agent to a minor-league deal with a moderate major-league salary of 2.65MM.  Has been really solid through the first 8 weeks of the season, going 6 innings or more in 9 of his first 10 starts of the season.

James Hoyt, RP, Jan 2015.  Traded from the Braves in the Gattis deal.  Hoyt is an interesting righty relief-pitcher with a slider-fastball mix with good velocity.  Has taken the scenic route to the upper minors - much like Gattis - as he was out of baseball for a year or two.  Has opened the season at Fresno, with mixed results so far.

Dylan James, SP, Nov 2014.  Undrafted college player, no pro-ball appearances.  Signed as a free agent.

Dan Johnson, 1B, Jan-Mar 2015.  Not really an 'enter' because he has already 'exited', having been traded to the Reds toward the end of Spring Training.  He was never on the 40-man and was assumed to be going to hang out in Fresno - but not any more.  Famous for one great hit.  Oh Lordy!  But really, as unlikely to be added to the 40-man as an NRI could be.

Jed Lowrie, IF, Dec 2014.  Jed-back-to-Houston was a great offseason signing and it put all those stupid stories about the "beaning" to rest once and for all.  Jed was a much-loved addition around these parts for seemingly not a lot of money, and it should be great seeing him man short until Correa's eventual arrival.  His lefty bat is also much needed in a lineup that hit righties poorly last year.

Pat Neschek, RP, Dec 2015.  The Astros won the bidding on the righty sidearmer who had a great 2014 with the Cardinals.  Two-years guaranteed, option for a third at a reasonable price.  Another good relief option.  Nice!

Colby Rasmus, CF, Jan 2015.  Signed as a free agent after the Astros traded Dexter Fowler.  Lefty-hitting OF with power who has been solid to the point of writing in late-May.  Previous relationship with Jeff Luhnow may have contributed to this signing.

Robert Stock, P, Mar 2015.  The very definition of "lottery ticket" - and a long-odds lottery ticket at that! - is one way to describe this signing.  Robert Stock is a 2009 second-round draftee who signed with the Cardinals when Jeff Luhnow was the Scouting Director.  Stock was signed as a catcher, but after posting a .644 OPS as a 21 year old at Lo- and Hi-A, he converted to pitching.  In 2014, again between Lo- and Hi-A, he posted a 6.1 K/9 against a 6.5 BB/9, and a 4.12 ERA.  May be the last time we write about him on this site.

Dan Straily, SP, Jan 2015.  Traded to the Astros from the Cubs for Dexter Fowler.  Was likely to be challenging for a back-of-the-rotation SP slot, but has been optioned to minor-league camp.  Has shown signs of recent improvement, but still carrying an ERA in AAA north of 4.

Joe Thatcher, RP, Feb 2015.  Signed as a non-roster invitee and XX(B) free agent with a 1.3MM ML salary.  Another member of the 2011 Padres 'pen, and another personal friend of A.J. Hinch, I would guess.  Has been reasonable as a LOOGY so far in 2015.

Luis Valbuena, IP, Jan 2015.  Traded to the Astros from the Cubs for Dexter Fowler.  Two years of team control left.  At the time of writing, Valbuena leads the Astros with 10 home runs, but his OBP is a little south of .300.  It will be interesting to see how he finishes up the year.

Jose Veras, RP, May 2015.  Veras returned to the Astros for the third time on a minor-league deal in May.  He will head to Extended Spring Training, then probably to Fresno.  At the time of the signing, the Fresno 'pen was kind of bad.


Exit:

Matt Albers, RP, Oct 2014.  Matt Albers was signed prior to the 2014 season to stiffen up the 'pen.  He strained a shoulder after 10 innings, giving up 1 ER in the process.  He spent the last five months of the season in the DL - much of it the 60-day DL - and was granted free-agency upon activation.  Now a White Sock, but broke his finger in a brawl.

Anthony Bass, RP, Nov 2014.  "Sea Bass" was subtracted from the 40-man roster right before the Nov 20 deadline to protect minor-leaguers in the Rule 5 draft.  Now with Texas, with some Major-League appearances.  Was injured for bits of 2014, but frequently ineffective after solid early-season form.

Jose Cisnero, RP, Nov 2014.  Outrighted off the 40-man in November, elected free-agency, now a member of the Reds.    It would have been hard seeing a fit for Cisnero in the 2015 bullpen, especially given his poor 2013 and 2014 performances.

Carlos Corporan, C, Jan 2015.  Corporan was offered a contract in November, DFA'd in January (to make room for Colby Rasmus) and traded to the Rangers for a 19-year old live arm (Akeem Bostick).  Corporan was liked by most Astros fans, but it was not clear that he would also be called a Killer C (along with Castro and Conger) on the roster.  Best of luck, Carlos.

Jesse Crain, RP, Oct 2014.  Signed with the Astros prior to the 2014 season as an injured bullpen force.  Never became un-injured.  Now back with the ChiSox.  But looks great in an Astros hat (unless the picture has been updated, that is!)

Delino DeShields Jr, OF, Dec 2014.  The speedy outfielder is likely to remain in Arlington for a significant portion of the season after being lost to the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft.  CF and 2B represents a position of strength for the Astros, so perhaps this isn't a huge loss, althought DDS Jr did kill the Astros in the recent 3-game sweep in late April.  Appears to have a late-inning pinch-runner role with a Rangers team that now seems unlikely to complete for the post-season.

Darin Downs, SP/RP, Dec 2014.  Outrighted off the 40-man roster in December, but has reappeared on the Grizzlies' roster, so he remains in the organisation.  Downs was a serviceable swingman for the Astros in 2014, but appears to be out of the fifth-starter slot.  Eventually granted his release from Fresno on May 20, after pitching to a 4.96 ERA in just over 16 frames.

Mike Foltynewicz, SP, Jan 2015.  Traded to the Braves in the Gattis deal.  Folty was expected to be a front-runner for one of the two vacant Astros' SP back-of-the-rotation slots.  He pumps gas in triple-digits, so he certainly big-league velocity, but he seemed very hittable throwing out of the 'pen for the Astros in late 2014.  He has some variable breaking stuff (sometimes average, sometimes worse), and struggles with control.  This loss may hurt, but most analysts seem to think that he has control and breaking-ball problems that are going to be difficult to address.  The Constable loved him, but probably doesn't now, because he is a Barve, and the Constable hates Barves.

Dexter Fowler, CF, Jan 2015.  Traded to the Cubs for Dan Straily and Luis Valbuena.  Great source of OBP for the Astros, but Fowler played at a position of unprecedented major- and minor-league depth, doesn't have enough power for the corners, and was not a great fielder.  Last year before free-agency.  Having a good season for the Cubs.

Dan Johnson, 1B, Jan-Mar 2015.  Not really an 'enter' because he has already 'exited', having been traded to the Reds toward the end of Spring Training.  He was never on the 40-man and was assumed to be going to hang out in Fresno - but not any more.  Famous for one great hit.  Oh Lordy!  But really, was as unlikely to be added to the 40-man as an NRI could be.

Marc Krauss, IF, Dec 2014.  Krauss was outrighted off the 40-man, claimed by the Angels, then outrighted off the Angels' 40-man without being claimed... so the Astros had another opportunity to reacquire him that they opted not to take.  Krauss hasn't done much in the Majors (career .615 OPS) and doesn't bring any other obvious skills to the table, so is unlikely to be missed.  Spent some time in the Major Leagues with the Angels in May 2015

Chris Lee, SP, May 2014.  The 22-year old was traded from Lo-A in exchange for 655.8K of International Bonus money.  Lee is now an Oriole.

Ariel Ovando, 3B/LHP, Dec 2014.  Lost in the minor-league phase of the Rule 5 draft to the Cubs.  Not much of an "exit" as he had not gotten out of short-season ball, and never got anywhere near the 40-man roster.  Still, interesting move, bears watching, especially as he will be moved to the mound by the Cubs.

Carlos Perez, C, November 2014.  Perez was a 23 year old catcher who had ascended to AAA.  He had a reputation as a defensive whiz with a light bat.  He was added to the 40-man, then immediately traded to the Angels for Hank Conger.  Recently had his first major-league hit.

Gregorio Petit, IF, Dec 2014.  Outrighted off the 40-man roster, but appears to have accepted an assignment to Fresno.  I quite liked Gregorio, and would be happy to see him in the Majors again.  Especially if he was recording the game-winning hit in Game 162 to send the Astros to the playoffs.  Anyone else be happy with that??  Well, it ain't gonna-happen, because Gregorio was traded to the Yankees for cash considerations (or a PTBNL) just before Spring Training ended.  Best of luck, pal.

Alex Presley, CF, Mar 2015.  Presley was DFA'd after signing a 1MM contract early in the offseason.  However, Colby Rasmus signed as a FA after this, and both profile as lefty swingers with the defensive chops to play all three OF positions if needed.  After Marisnick's solid spring, and Joe Thatcher needing to be added to the 40-man, an out-of-options Presley was DFA'd just prior to the start of the season.  Presley later accepted an assignment to Fresno, where he remains.

David Rollins, SP/RP, Dec 2014.  Rollins was claimed by the Mariners in the Rule 5 draft.  One of a number of C-grade pitching prospects in the high-minors for the Astros.  Was lights out in Spring Training as a lefty reliever for the Mariners and looked destined to make the roster, but then got suspended for 80 games for Stanozolol use, which ironically makes him even less likely to be returned to the Astros.  Farewell!

Rio Ruiz, 3B, Jan 2015.  Traded to the Braves in the Gattis deal.  Ruiz sat comfortably in the Astros top-10 prospects on most evaluators' lists, but usually right behind Colin Moran, also on the 3B depth chart.  Most scouts had some concerns over Ruiz, but he was lauded for his solid hit tool and good strike-zone recognition.  This one could hurt, but the Astros had a few months to evaluate Ruiz right next to Moran, and clearly chose Moran, who went on to have a better Spring Training than Ruiz (for what that is worth).

Andrew Thurman, SP, Jan 2015.  Traded to the Braves in the Gattis deal.  Seen as a throw-in after a rough year in the lower minors.  Seemed like a quick exit for a 2013 2nd-rounder but the numbers were not good at Lo-A.  There is plenty of time for Thurman to turn it around, but he probably wants to do it sooner rather than later.

Ronald Torreyes, 2B, May 2015.  DFA'd to make room for Preston Tucker, then traded to Toronto for a PTBNL or cash considerations.  Torreyes was eyebrow-raisingly added to the 40-man instead of DDS Jr, then removed from the 40-man around 5 weeks into the season after a slow start (.200/.211/.214 triple slash in 72 PA's).  Adding to the DFA decision was the progress made by Tony Kemp and Carlos Correa in the minors, and Villar in the majors.

Nick Tropeano, SP, Nov 2014.  Tropeano seemed to have the inside running on one of the two 2015 rotation slots.  He seemed to lack a breaking ball, but did have a great changeup and decent fastball velocity.  The counter-argument is that the Astros traded a decent, controllable, young SP for a backup catcher.  Definitely bears watching, and will probably hurt some - perhaps as soon as 2015.  As of late May, has had one start in the majors with the Angels.

Jose Veras, RP, Oct 2014.  Elected Free Agency after the season finished.  Loves the Astros.  Probably outside the Astros offices at MMP holding a 1980's boom-box above his head, trying to serenade Jeff Luhnow.  Got signed by the Barves, but then released on March 19, so the prospect of a reunion remains credible.  Would look good in the Fresno pen as a depth piece (of he would agree to that), but will probably catch on somewhere.  Re-signed with the Astros on a Minor League deal in May, so is also placed in the "enter" portion of this article.

Alex White, SP, Mar 2015.  DFA'd to make room for Roberto Hernandez, who made the team as an XX(B) FA.  Alex had TJS in early 2013, and has struggled since his return in mid-2014.  Accepted assignment to Fresno, with variable results so far.

And finally... Josh Zeid, RP, Nov 2014.  Outrighted off the roster prior to the deadline to protect minor-leaguers from the Rule 5 draft.  But the Tigers pounced quickly... and for good reason, given the state of their 'pen.  A solid bounce-back candidate, especially after having both feet operated on last year.  Good velocity and movement.  Currently pitching for AAA Toledo in the Tigers' system and has not seen the majors so far in 2015.

State of the Astros: Catcher

Over the next several days/couple weeks, I'd like to take a position-by-position look at the Astros, getting a quick overview of the current starters, backups, and minor league players who could contribute this season.

Starter - Jason Castro

Castro is starting to make people think that his 2013 All-Star year may have been his career year, even though he's still just 27. Despite his batting average dropping from even last season's, he's actually made some improvements offensively. His walk rate is up about 2% while he's dramatically cut down on his strikeouts, cutting about 7.5% from last year. He's regained some of his pop and his .237 BABIP this year indicates his batting average could see a rebound. He's even seen a good bump in his caught stealing rate, to the point where he's been above average in 2015. Looking at the most widely used projection systems for the rest of the season Castro is trending towards being a 2-3 WAR player this year. That would make him a middle of the pack starting catcher.

Reasonable end of season projection ranges

AVG - .215-.240
OBP - .285-.315
SLG - .380-.410

Backup - Hank Conger

The trade for Conger still looks like a bit of a head scratcher. We all heard about his pitch framing prowess, but with his limited playing time so far I can't help but wonder how much good that's doing for the club. When you factor in that the Astros gave up Nick Tropeano, a young starter with potential who's turned in one strong start for the Angels this year, and Carlos Perez, a backup catcher who has held his own in the majors so far with almost as much playing time this year as Conger, this one is looking like a needless trade. As far as his performance, 41 plate appearances isn't enough to give us an indication of how he'll perform over a season. His batting average is abysmal, but he's sporting a nearly 20% walk rate and two of his three hits have been home runs, so he's actually close to league average offensively in an extremely small sample size. His .176 BABIP indicates his average will come up, but his track record says his walk rate will come way down so his OBP probably is about right. Projections put him at a .5-1 WAR player by the end of the season, which is a small return for the above mentioned prospects.

Reasonable end of season projection ranges

AVG - .180-.230 (wide range due to small sample size so far)
OBP - .295-.330
SLG - .345-.375

Prospect - Max Stassi

We've heard for a couple years now that the front office thinks of Stassi as the "Catcher of the Future". Barring injury, I don't think he'll get any meaningful playing time until possibly September. Of course, if the Astros are still in the playoff hunt at that point in the year, even that may not happen. He's struggled quite a bit in AAA, especially so far this year, so the bloom may be off the rose with Max. So far this year he's striking out at a pace that would make Chris Carter proud. He's shown an ability to get hot fast in the past, albeit at AA, so I don't think it's quite time to give up on him yet, but this season is pivotal for him. But we'll always have the memory of him getting his first major league RBI by catching a pitch with his teeth.

Prospect - Jacob Nottingham

Nottingham has been creeping up the bottom of the Astros prospect lists the last couple seasons. He's expected to develop into a power hitter, though there's a little concern he may not stick behind the plate. After mixed results the last couple years with the Gulf Coast squad and in Greeneville, Nottingham is off to a strong start with Quad Cities, the best minor league team in baseball so far this year. He's cut down on his strikeouts and his power has been showing up more frequently, as he's currently sporting a .250 ISO, including six homers in 121 plate appearances. He's still a few years away, but behind Stassi he's the biggest hope at catcher down on the farm.

Prospect - Tyler Heineman

Heineman isn't appearing on many prospect lists, but this switch hitting catcher shouldn't be forgotten. In his second season at Corpus he's putting together a solid season. He doesn't look like a power guy, but he's been showing a solid ability to handle the strike zone with a solid walk rate and a very good strikeout rate (just 6.3% so far this year, 12 % last year). Defensively, he has a strong 43% caught stealing rate so far. He's not the kind of prospect you can dream on, but he could turn into a solid player.

Summary

Depending on the rest of Stassi's season, it looks like Castro is still the catcher of the next few seasons. He'll get more expensive as he works his way through his arbitration years, probably ending up around $8-10 million per season. If he can continue to produce between 2 and 3 WAR per year, that's about right. Conger is just as much of question mark as he was at the beginning of the year. Stassi may be playing his way out of his prospect status and Luhnow's Christmas card list and Nottingham is too far away to expect anything soon. I'd grade the Astros overall catcher situation as a C+.

PreStros Morning Report: May 21

TL;DR

*Org goes 2-1 on the day; Cumulative 101-60 record
*Fresno scores 10 unanswered runs behind Jon Singleton and Carlos Correa's home runs
*Corpus' game is rained out
*Lancaster goes off with seven in the second, and nine in the 3rd in a 22-5 win over High Desert.
*Quad Cities' offense gets shut down in a 3-0 loss despite Brandon McNitt's strong start.

Fresno (23-17)

Nashville enjoyed a 2-0 lead for an inning and a half, and then Fresno scored the next ten runs for a 10-2 win. Luis Cruz threw 7IP, 5H/2ER, 4K:3BB; Murilo Gouvea, who hadn't pitched for an Astros affiliate since 2012, threw 1IP, 2H/0ER, 1K:0BB; Jason Stoffel struck out the side in the 9th.

Jon Singleton was 3x4 with a double and a two-run homer, with a walk and 3RBI; Carlos Correa was 2x5 with a two-run homer and 3RBI; Matt Duffy (RBI) and Nolan Fontana (3B, BB, 2RBI) added two hits each. Robbie Grossman was 1x4 with a double and a walk.

Man of the Match: Luis Cruz

Corpus (26-13)

Game with San Antonio postponed due to heavy rain in Corpus.

Lancaster (21-20)

High Desert struck first with three runs in top of the first inning, and Lancaster brought it to 3-2. High Desert tacked on another run in the top of the second, but then Lancaster responded with seven runs in the bottom of the second. And then Lancaster responded in the bottom of the third with nine more runs. The JetHawks would add three more in the 7th and one on the 8th to defeat High Desert 22-5. Yes, 22-5. It's not even a franchise record. In August 2013, Lancaster beat Lake Elsinore 26-5.

Evan Grills overcame a three-run homer in the first to throw 6IP, 9H/4ER, 3K:0BB; Tyler Brunnemann allowed 2H/1ER, 1K:2BB in 2IP; and Keegan Yuhl threw 1IP, 1H/0ER, 1K:0BB.

So with 19 hits and eight walks, there were a lot of big nights. Jack Mayfield was 4x6 with 4RBI; A.J. Reed was 3x6 with a double, homer, and 4RBI; Brett Phillips was 3x5 with a walk, two triples, 3RBI, and four runs scored; Danry Vasquez was 3x6 with a double and 3RBI; Marc Wik was 2x3 with two walks. Chase McDonald was 2x5 with a solo homer and a walk.

Man of the Match: A.J. Reed

Quad Cities (31-10)

With a 3-0 loss at Clinton, the River Bandits have lost back-to-back games for the first time since April 25-26 and just the second time all season. Brandon McNitt threw 5IP, 4H/1ER, 6K:2BB; Jose Montero (1.1IP) and Aaron Greenwood (1.2IP) each gave up a run.

Bobby Boyd was 2x3 with an outfield assist, and Jason Martin was 1x3 to provide all the offense Quad Cities could muster. There is no joy in Mudville.

Man of the Match: Brandon McNitt

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Wednesday Morning Link Dump

*At 26-14, the Astros have the franchise's best record after 40 games, and a 41.7% chance of winning the division, a 59.9% chance of making the postseason, and a 4.1% chance of winning the World Series

*George Springer brought a fog machine, strobe lights, and a dance remix into the clubhouse after last night's win:
It's 2015, and we're killing it, so we might as well have some fun. (Subscription may be required)

*Luke Gregerson has been away from the team twice in the last two weeks to deal with a "personal issue," and has been tagged up over the course of his last three games. After allowing two earned runs last night and getting pulled with two outs in the 9th for Pat Neshek, A.J. Hinch is giving Gregerson today (Wednesday) off. Hinch told the Chronicle (previous link):
Guys have real lives. I don't know whether's it's connected or not. He's not going to want to talk about it. It's very personal.

*Ken Rosenthal says the Astros have been scouting Jeff Samardzija on the off-chance he becomes available. He also notes that the Astros' minor-league tandem pitching - to some - devalues their pitching prospects, while others like it because it keeps their innings down.

*Buster Olney likes the idea of Houston native Scott Kazmir going to the Astros if the A's put him on the block.

*Lance McCullers will get another start Saturday in Detroit. McCullers and his Batman cleats prompted a column from Sports on Earth.

*Jason Castro changed his swing, and his walk rate is increasing, strikeout rate is decreasing, and he's throwing out almost 10% more baserunners than league-average.

*Sam Deduno had a precautionary MRI on his back.

*Fresno will offer a pizza with a hot dog-stuffed crust.

*An ear infection has led to former Astro Jarred Cosart headed to the DL with vertigo.

PreStros Morning Report: May 19

TL;DR

*Org goes 4-0 on the night; 99-57 cumulative record.
*Runs and hits and runs and hits. Fresno wins 12-2 behind Matt Dominguez's 5x5 night; Jon Singleton's 4x5 night, Domingo Santana's two homers, and Carlos Correa's first Triple-A home run.
*Corpus got an unearned run-less start from Vince Velasquez and 3RBI from Jon Kemmer in a 6-2 win over San Antonio.
*Lancaster scored once in the bottom of the 9th and got the walk-off in the 12th for an 8-7 win over High Desert.
*Almost literally all Quad Cities does is win. Derek Fisher hit three doubles, Nick Tanielu knocked in three runs, and the River Bandits won their 19th of their last 22 games.


Fresno (22-17)

Good LAWD. Fresno hammered out 12 runs on 19 hits off El Paso, and the Grizzlies cruised to a 12-2 win over the Chihuahuas. Asher Wojciechowski threw 5.2IP, 5H/2ER, 2K:2BB for the win; Richard Rodriguez allowed a hit, striking out four, in 2.1IP; Jason Stoffel struck out one in the 9th.

Crazy thing is, the Grizzlies were only 2x9 w/RISP - they just hit four doubles and six home runs. Matt Dominguez was 5x5 with a double and a solo homer; Jon Singleton was 4x5 with a double and an RBI; Domingo Santana was 2x5 with two home runs and 3RBI; Carlos Correa hit his first Triple-A homer, going 2x6 with 2RBI; Robbie Grossman (2RBI) and L.J. Hoes were each 2x6 with a homer. Luis Flores was 2x5 with a double and 2RBI, and Joe Sclafani was 0x3 with two walks.

Man of the Match: Matt Dominguez, who - with a single, double, and a homer - was just a second girl short of a threesome.

Corpus (26-12)

San Antonio had the briefest of 2-0 leads in the top of the 3rd, but Corpus erased that and tacked on to it in the bottom half on the way to a 6-2 win. Vince Velasquez threw 5.1IP, 5H/2R (0ER), 4K:1BB; Mitch Lambson threw 2.2IP, 0H/0ER, 2K:0BB; and Travis Ballew gave up two hits but allowed no runs in the 9th.

Jon Kemmer was 2x4 with two doubles and 3RBI; Chan Moon and Tony Kemp were each 2x3 with a walk; Telvin Nash hit his 7th homer of the season and drew a walk. Leo Heras was 1x3 with a walk and two stolen bases.

Man of the Match: Vince Velasquez

Lancaster (20-19)

Crazy one, as usual, in Lancaster as there were five lead changes resulting in a 7-6 High Desert lead in the bottom of the 9th. A Brett Booth sac fly sent the game to extras and a J.D. Davis bases-loaded single to right provided the walk-off run in an 8-7 victory. Michael Feliz threw 4.2IP, 5H/5ER, 4K:1BB; Keegan Yuhl allowed 4H/2ER, 3K:1BB in 1.2IP; Chris Cotton inherited a bases-loaded jam and got out of it with 2.1IP, 0H/0ER, 4K:2BB; Albert Minnis allowed 1H/0ER, 3K:2BB in 3.1IP.

Danry Vasquez was 4x6 with a home run, walk, and 2RBI; A.J. Reed was 3x5 with a double, homer, walk, and an RBI; Jack Mayfield was 2x5 with a walk; Brett Phillips went 1x5 with two walks; Brett Booth went 1x3 with the game-tying RBI and two walks.

Man of the Match: Danry Vasquez

Quad Cities (31-8)

Just ridiculous. After starting the season at a solid 12-5, the River Bandits have gone 19-3 in their last 22 games, including last night's 8-5 win at Clinton. Francis Martes threw 4IP, 2H/1ER, 5K:3BB; Kevin Comer allowed 7H/4ER, 2K:2BB in 4.2IP; and Aaron Greenwood got a strikeout for the last out of the game.

Derek Fisher was 3x5 with three doubles; Nick Tanielu was 2x4 with a triple and 3RBI; Jamie Ritchie (2B, 2RBI), Mott Hyde (BB), and Ryan Bottger (RBI) each added two hits.

Man of the Match: Derek Fisher

From the Office of the County Clerk - G40: Astros versus Athletics

Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.61) versus Roberto Hernández (1-3, 4.12). 

The Astros are playing really well.  This season, they have beat a couple of really tough pitchers (Corey Kluber, opening night; the San Diego starting three; a couple of the Mariners starters) but they have also been shown up by some good (Jered Weaver, Chris Hatcher) and not-so-good (Wandy Rodriguez, Ross Detwiler) arms as well.

I bring this up, because tonight, they went in with a good game-plan against a pitcher with great stuff.  They worked the count, got pitches to hit, and had him out of the game after five innings.  From there for most teams, it is simply a matter of finding a reliever who is struggling, and try to add on.

On the opposite side of the coin (i) Roberto Hernandez has been really, really good, going six or more innings in every start after his first of the season and (ii) the Astros pen has not had a soft underbelly this year at all.  Last year, anyone other that Fields, Qualls and Sipp had an ERA in double-figures (it seemed), but this year, Harris, Fields, Sipp, Qualls and Gregerson have all been really good, and Chapman, Thatcher and Deduno have been really good at times.

And, finally, how things change.  On this date last year, the Astros were 17-28.  This year they have just gone to 26-14, for the best record in the AL, and a half-game behind St Louis for the best record in the majors.  On this date last year, the Athletics were 28-16, enjoying an off-day.  This year, they are 14-27, good for the worst record in the AL.  The Astros now lead the Major Leagues in home runs, and have a 5.5 game lead over the Angels, with the Mariners a further 2.5 games back.  Astros win, 6-4.

On the Mound:
Roberto Hernández was good, allowing solitary runs in the third and sixth innings only.  He went six innings, allowed 9 baserunners (7 hits, 2 walks) and struck out three.  He opened strongly, walking Coco Crisp in the first before striking out the side - ironically his last three strikeouts for the game.

He was assisted in the second frame by having two runners thrown out at the plate.  An oddity in a major league game, that is for sure, but also perhaps a sign of how much the Astros defence has improved over the offseason.  A Max Muncy walk on four pitches with one out started the trouble, then Brett Lowrie golfed a low sinker into the CF-RF gap, which rolled all the way to the wall.  Rasmus's throw found Villar, the cut off man, and Villar's throw was a little on the first-base side of the plate, but Castro recovered, and tagged Muncy right before he slid in to home.  Villar and Castro both made solid plays, and they needed to be to get Muncy, who had run hard all the way from first.

Lowrie cruised into second, and he tried to score when the next batter (Sam Fuld) grounded it to Chris Carter, deep at first base.  Carter tried to lead Hernández to the bag, but Fuld beat it out.  Lowrie didn't slow up around third, and he tried to score, but Hernández fired a strike to home plate, just in time for Castro to again turn and tag Lowrie.  Lowrie was out by a frame, which was proven on replay because the A's challenged the call.  That was the third out of the inning, so the A's were held scoreless, albeit briefly, because Hernández allowed a two-out single and stolen base to Marcus Semien in the third, then he hung a change-up to Josh Reddick, who doubled into RF to drive Semien home.

Hernández bounced back to allow a two-out single in the fourth, and a one out single and stolen base in the fifth.  Opposing players do run on Hernández a bit, possibly because he often maintains the high leg kick from the stretch.  In the sixth, Hernández elevated a sinker a to Max Muncy, and he drove it out, adjacent to the RF foul pole.  He finished the inning without incident, and his night was done after 105 pitches.

Sipp got the assignment for the seventh, and he was typically excellent in only allowing a broken bat single to Billy Burns.  The super-slow-mo camera broadcast some awesome pictures of the bat breaking, but the ball flew into shallow CF for the hit.  Burns was subsequently caught stealing when he beat the throw to second, but his foot came off the bag after the awkward slide, and Altuve maintained contact for the out.  Qualls then retired the side in the eighth - the score at that stage was 3-2.

Luke Gregerson came out for the ninth with a four run lead, as the Astros had just gone homer-happy in the bottom half of the eighth.  Gregerson has had a tough time of things lately away from the ballpark, but he has also looked vulnerable recently on the mound.  He allowed a lead-off walk to Stephen Vogt, then Max Muncy doubled off the scoreboard to left to put two runners in scoring position with no outs.  Brett Lawrie then singled on an elevated fastball, right over the head of Villar to score one - still no outs and runners on the corners.  Mark Canha the bounced into a 6-4-3 double play - a pretty one too - which scored the run but cleared the bases.  That ran the score to 6-4, and meant that the tying run was no longer at the plate.

Gregerson then walked Sogard, and Hinch pulled him in favour of Pat Neshek.  Neshek needed three pitches to strike out Billy Burns and record the save, preserving the win for the Astros.  The 0-2 pitch was an elevated fastball, and Burns foul-tipped it into Castros glove for the final out.

At the Plate:
The Astros put Sonny Gray under pressure from the outset.  They managed two baserunners in the first (a Valbuena single and a Springer walk), then scored two runs in the second before any outs were recorded.  Colby Rasmus doubled to lead off the frame, then Chris Carter took a 3-2 fastball over the Crawford Boxes for a long home run.  The pitch missed up and in - it was supposed to be a fastball down and away - and Carter does what he does when he is batting well.  Jason Castro then singled, but the rest of the side went in order.

An infield single in the third preceded the side being retired in order in the fourth.  In the fifth, the Astros got another run after they loaded the bases with no outs on an Altuve single, a Valbuena walk and a Springer walk.  Springer struck out twice in that at-bat, but the umpire missed two pitches in the same spot - knee high, on the inside part of the plate.  Anyhow, with Gattis at the plate, the ball squirted away from the catcher Vogt, but didn't go far behind him on the first-base side of the plate.  The three baserunners tried to advance, and Altuve was a dead duck at the plate after Vogt pounced on the ball, and Gray was solid in covering the plate.  Gattis saved the inning by singling into left field to score Luis Valbuena, but no further runs scored in that frame.  Gray showed some serious intestinal fortitude to get himself out of that inning, and he made good pitches to both Tucker and Rasmus to record outs.

Ex-Stro Fernando Rodriguez relieved to start the sixth, and he faced the minimum in the sixth and seventh.  In the seventh, Altuve led off with a single, and tried to steal second.  He was initially ruled safe, but Bob Melvin - who did not have a challenge available - talked the umpires into choosing to review the play of their own accord.  Altuve was ruled out - his fifth caught stealing of the year in 19 attempts.

In the eighth, F-Rod got one out, then walked Handsome Jake, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement for Preston Tucker in left.  Ex-Stro Fernando Abad entered, and he tried to work Rasmus up with high fastballs.  Rasmus just missed the first two, the connected for the third one on a deep drive to right.  The pitch was meant to be away, but missed arm-side-and-up and caught the inner third of the plate.  Abad bounced back to get Carter, but Jason Castro hung in there on a slider over the plate, pulling it down the RF line for his fifth homer of the year.  That ran the score to 6-2, and for a while, it looked like the Astros would need every one of those six runs.

The Astros added another three home runs tonight, with two-run shots to Carter (1-4) and Rasmus (2-4, 2B) and a solo shot to Jason Castro (2-4).  For those keeping count at home, five of the six runs scored on long-balls.  Gattis and Altuve had two hit nights (2-4 and 2-5 respectively), and Springer (0-2, 2xBB) and Valbuena (1-3, BB) were also on base twice.  Jonathan Villar went 1-4, and played very solid defence.

Turning Point:
Colby Rasmus added on in the eighth, which ended up being the winning runs.  Fernando Abad tried to bust him with fastballs up three times in a row, and Rasmus eventually caught up.  Another long home run to deep RF - cleared the fence by plenty, and looked like an upper-deck shot.

Man of the Match:
Colby Rasmus had two hits - both for extra-bases - while helping out in CF to rest Marisnick and give Tucker a start.  His line sits at an Astro-like .243/.310/.530, so he fits in just fine it seems.

Goat of the Game:
Luke Gregerson has had as many mound visits recently as appearances.  Brett Strom is the last guy he should be seeing, but Strommy seems to be spending plenty of time in the middle when Gregerson is on the bump.  Hopefully, just a rough patch for Luke, and of course, acknowledgement is made of his personal circumstances.

Up Next:
Jesse Hahn (1-3, 4.42) versus Dallas Keuchel (5-0, 1.87)

The Astros get to turn the rotation over again, after going 4-1 the last time through.  Only the fifth starter's slot lost, although the loss was not hung on the fifth starter, which was Lance McCullers.  The Astros could skip the fifth starters slot the next time through the order

2 Eastern, 1 Central.

The Astros fly to Detroit after tomorrow's game.  The first game of that series is a day-game, which is a little unusual.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G39: Astros versus Athletics

Drew Pomeranz (2-3, 4.42) versus Lance McCullers (0-0, 0.00)

Happy Lance McCullers Day, everyone.  Today was another celebration of the Astros' youth movement, as Lance McCullers made the jump from AA ball to the Major Leagues at the age of 21.  We got to see a few things today - a young man equip himself well on what may be the biggest day of his life, batman spikes, a nasty curveball, and the athleticism to field his position very well.  We got to see an Astros starter throw harder than 95!  We got to see an interesting and tight game of baseball.

The Astros lost, 2-1.  Unclutch!

Before we launch into the game recap, a couple of transactions.  Sam Deduno was shifted to the 15-day DL to make room for McCullers on the 25-man, and Jed Lowrie was shifted to the 60-day DL to make room for McCullers on the 40-man.  Deduno's DL stint was a surprise to most, and there were no whispers of an injury prior to the announcement of a lower back strain.  Deduno's DL stint was retroactive to Thursday, so he is able to be activated again in around 10 days time - around the 29th of May.

Secondly, the Astros traded left-handed 22 year old Lo-A starting pitcher Chris Lee for 655.8K of international signing money.  That represents the 46th and 76th slots in the international draft, obtained from the Orioles.  MLBTR notes that the Astros have "reportedly signed several seven-figure players", mentioning three specific names.  I guess not all teams want to be active in Latin America (and elsewhere), so selling their slots is a reasonable thing to do.

On the Mound:
As you may have heard, Lance McCullers Jr got the start.  Overall, he pitched well, keeping the A's by-and-large off the board in terms of run scoring.  He showed genuine major-league-starter stuff, but lacked a little control and polish.  He left after four-and-two-thirds with a runner on second, after 93 pitches.  He allowed one earned run, struck out five and walked three.

The Oakland first inning was remarkable for a Marcus Semien walk and a first career strikeout of Country Breakfast, swinging on a nasty curve away.  In the second, McCullers got into some strife and ran his pitch count up.  Max Muncy doubled to deep LF sandwiched around strikeouts to Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie.  McCullers then walked Sam Fuld, then Eric Sogard singled to RF on a 3-2 count.  That drove Muncy in.  The pitch was a low fastball that missed a little over the plate, and Sogard grounded it through the gap between Carter and Altuve.  McCullers then walked Coco Crisp on a full count before enticing Marcus Semien into a groundout for the third out.

McCullers recorded his first career clean inning when he retired the side in order in the third - on 9 pitches, too, with six of them to one batter.  He retired the side in the fourth, and the first two batters in the fifth before Marcus Semien doubled down the line in left.  A.J. Hinch summoned Joe Thatcher from the 'pen, and he had an epic 10-pitch battle with Josh Reddick that resulted in a strikeout to end the frame, and close the book on McCullers' night.

Thatcher stayed on to open the sixth.  The inning started badly when Jonathan Villar misplayed Billy Bulter's grounder for an error a hit (it was changed).  The ball was hit hard, and Villar was trying to play it on the bounce, but it ate him up.  Thatcher then compounded the error by walking Vogt and Muncy to load the bases with no outs.  Will Harris relieved, and he worked to a 2-2 count on Brett Lawrie, before getting him to chase a curveball away that was probably a little elevated.  Laurie - who has a noted weakness with breaking-balls away - may have been looking for it, and he reached down and flicked it into RF to advance the runners by a base each.  The Astros defence then rallied, and recorded the next out at home on a nifty groundout to the pitcher, then recorded a double-play where Chris Carter fielded a ground ball while moving toward first base, then stepped on first, then threw the ball to home plate in time for Castro to tag the runner.

So Harris worked out of the jam, but not before one of the inherited runners scored, which gave the Athletics the lead, which ended up being decisive in the final wash-up.  Fields came on for the seventh, and he struck out two while facing the minimum.  Jake Buchanan came on for the eighth and ninth, and he mopped up effectively, striking out one and recording five groundouts while also facing the minimum.

At the Plate: 
The Astros opened the game well, with Jose Altuve getting HBP on the second pitch of the first inning.  He stole second, then Jonathan Villar sac-bunted to the third baseman, advancing Altuve.  After a George Springer walk, Evan Gattis hit a fly-ball to mid-RF, and Altuve was quick enough to score, with the throw slightly off-line.

That was the only run that the Astros scored, and it wasn't for lack of opportunity.  In the third, Handsome Jake beat out an infield hit to short, but was erased on Altuve's fielders' choice grounder.  Villar then reached on an error - Semien dropped the toss from the second baseman Sogard - the George Springer walked to load the bases with one out.  An Evan Gattis double-play grounder killed that rally.

In the fourth, Preston Tucker reached by beating the pitcher to the bag on a grounder to the right side.  Remember that this is the unathletic guy who cannot run!  Chris Carter walked to move him to second, and Marwin González sac bunted to move the runners up.  But Jason Castro popped up, and Jake Marisnick's line drive carried a little too far, and found the glove of Sam Fuld.

More opportunities in the fifth.  Jonathan Villar walked on four pitches with one out, and George Springer walked to move Villar into scoring position.  Pomeranz must have been injured, as he was removed from the game.  Edwin Mujica relieved, and Gattis grounded it into the 5.5 hole, with Semien making the play on a force at third.  Preston Tucker struck out to end the frame and the threat.

The sixth through to the ninth innings all involved the minimum number of batters for the Astros.  Chris Carter was the Astros' last baserunner - walking to start the sixth.  He was erased on a Marwin González double play ball.  George Springer - leading off the eighth - hit a long fly ball to the left side of Tal's Hill, and Sam Fuld made a stunning play, running up the hill and catching the ball at waist height out to the side.  The ball would have landed in play - right beside him.  Apparently, that drive would have been a home run in 26 ML stadiums, or if the ball was hit a few yards to the left, it would have bounced off the wall over the yellow line.  That was the last time an Astros bat made some noise.

The Astros, as a team, walked six times and had two hits.  One batter reached on an error and one was hit by a pitch, so that makes a total of ten baserunners.  Nine of those reached in the first five innings, so they must have worked hard to allow only one of those baserunners to score.  George Springer went 0-1, but he walked three times, and Chris Carter went 0-2, but walked twice.  Jonathan Villar had the remaining walk (0-2).  Preston Tucker and Handsome Jake had a single each.

Turning Point:
Gattis' inning-ending double play in the third was decisive.  Pomeranz was struggling, having allowed a single, then had two fielder's choices (with the second one an error) followed by a walk to load the bases.  But the 4-hole has not been helpful to the Astros all year, and Gattis hit a tailor-made grounder to short, for a 6-unassisted-3 double play.

Plus, two sac-bunts tonight.  Anyone have any publishable thoughts on that?

Man of the Match:
Lance McCullers.  Hopefully next start, he is less nervous and that translates to better control, fewer walks, and lower pitch counts.

Goat of the Game:
Jason Castro.  Two days off, and you pay Hinch back by going 0-4, 3K.

Up Next:
Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.61) versus Roberto Hernandez (1-3, 4.12).  This may not end well.

8 Eastern, 7 Central.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Drafting Lance McCullers

In honor of Lance McCullers' MLB debut tonight - and doesn't this feel like Christmas Eve, when you can open one present, and you know that Carlos Correa is still under the tree - we thought we'd go back and take a quick look at McCullers and his path to the Majors.

When star Astros shortstop Clint Barmes took his .698 OPS and signed as a free agent with the Pirates following the 2011 season, the Astros received a compensation pick in the 2012 draft that would eventually be the 41st overall pick. The Astros made their second selection of the 1st Round - 40 picks after choosing Carlos Correa - by selecting McCullers, a pitcher out of Jesuit High School in Tampa with a strong commitment to the University of Florida.

McCullers said as much up front:
My commitment to Florida is solid. This is not one of those things that I'm just kind of using my leverage [to get a better deal from a major league team].

He was the 2012 Gatorade Player of the Year (joining Zack Greinke, Justin Upton, and Alex Rodriguez) and the 2012 recipient of the Jackie Robinson Award, given to the most promising senior prospect after going 13-0 with a 0.18 ERA in 77IP, with 140K:30BB.

His agent was, of course, Scott Boras. Given that expressed commitment to Florida combined with Boras' presence - and the inevitable binder of information that Boras provided to teams - and the brand new draft bonus pool system, teams were leery of dealing with Boras, and McCullers, and McCullers wasn't happy:
It’s frustrating, the whole draft thing is frustrating. I’ve done nothing than get better since I’ve been ranked No. 1 forever, and no one in the country had a better year than me on the hill. If Major League Baseball wants to undervalue me, then I’ll show them what I’m really about three years from now.

Keith Law summed it up:
He’s seen as having a high price tag and extremely strong commitment to Florida. Guys like that are tough. ...He could easily end up, five six years from now we're talking about him as 'why didn't he go in the top five overall picks?'

And Law loved that the Astros drafted him, anyway. 

But how the Astros were able to sign McCullers had as much to do with Carlos Correa taking under-slot as the 1-1 and freeing up money to distribute around the other selections - mainly McCullers. Remember it was thought that the Astros would take Mark Appel, but he turned down $6m from the Astros in advance of the draft, leading to Correa's selection, and his agreeing to a $4.8m bonus, $2.4m under slot for the 1-1 pick in 2012, leading yours truly to say that 2012 could be a historic draft for the Astros.

McCullers told WTSP that, if teams were worried about his signability, they should have checked with him:
If any team took the time to listen and show interest in me, they would know I wasn't an impossible sign. I was just asking teams to recognize that I'm one of the best pitchers in the country... That I have a strong commitment to Florida... And I'm not going to go out there and throw my education away for nothing.

On June 17, the Astros signed McCullers to what was reported at a $2.5m bonus - almost double the slot value and just under the recommended bonus for the 12th overall pick. It wouldn't have been possible without the financial flexibility of both the Astros and Carlos Correa.

Monday Morning Hot Links

The completion of the four-game sweep of Toronto puts the Astros at 25-13, giving them a 41.6% chance to win the division and a 61.1% chance of making the postseason.

*25-13 after 38 games matches the best start in franchise history (1998).

*Ex-Blue Jay Colby Rasmus told the Toronto Sun before Thursday's series opener that the Astros would be going for the sweep. Hand-wringing ensues.

*Things got testy in the Blue Jays clubhouse after Saturday night's loss.

*Lance McCullers, Jr. will make his MLB debut tonight, and in the stands will be his parents, grandfather, fiancee, future in-laws, brothers, high school coaches, and friends.

*A.J. Hinch likes what he's seen from McCullers, going back to Spring Training.

*Meat Wagon updates:
Brett Oberholtzer will throw a bullpen session today to test out the blister.
Brad Peacock has been throwing off flat ground, and will throw a bullpen session on May 29

*Dave Bergman, who played with the Astros from 1978-1981, passed away.

PreStros Morning Report: May 17

TL;DR

*Org goes 4-0 on the day; cumulative 92-55 record
*Matt Duffy drove in both runs in an extra-inning 2-1 Fresno win.
*Strong pitching from Josh Hader and Chris Devenski and a Jio Mier 2x3 day gave Corpus a 5-2 win and the sweep at Frisco.
*Troy Scribner struck out eight in 5IP in a 2-0 Lancaster win
*Bobby Boyd and Jacob Nottingham each had three hits in a 6-5 Quad Cities win.

Fresno (21-16)

Fresno and El Paso took a 1-1 tie into extra innings before a Domingo Santana single in the 11th was followed by a Jon Singleton walk, and a Matt Duffy RBI single to give the Grizzlies a 2-1 lead. Tyson Perez came in and navigated a leadoff HBP to hold on to the win. Handsome Dan Straily threw 6IP, 7H/0ER, 7K:1BB; Jason Stoffel gave up 1H/1ER, 2K:1BB in 2IP; Kevin Chapman allowed 1H/0ER, 1K:0BB in 2IP, and Tyson Perez got the save.

Jon Singleton (SB) and Alex Presley (2B) were each 2x4 with a walk; Domingo Santana was 1x2 with three walks; Matt Duffy was 1x5 with 2RBI. Carlos Correa was 0x5 with 2K.

Man of the Match: Handsome Dan Straily

Corpus (24-12)

Make that a W6 for Corpus, who completed the sweep at Frisco with a 5-2 win. Josh Hader threw 4IP, 4H/1ER, 3K:2BB while Chris Devenski gave up 3H/1ER, 4K:0BB in 5IP - his second Earned Run in 34IP this season.

Jio Mier was 2x3 with a double, walk, and a solo homer; Conrad Gregor was 1x3 with a walk and an RBI; Tony Kemp and Andrew Aplin (2BB) each stole a base.

Man of the Match: Chris Devenski

Lancaster (18-19)

Lancaster pushed across two runs in the 4th, and that was all they'd need in a 2-0 win at Inland Empire. Troy Scribner allowed 1H/0ER, 8K:2BB in 5IP; Albert Minnis and Chris Cotton each threw two scoreless innings as the pitching staff holds Inland Empire to three hits.

Danry Vasquez was 3x4, and Jack Mayfield was 2x3 with a two-run homer. J.D. Davis (BB), A.J. Reed, and James Ramsay had your other hits.

Man of the Match: Troy Scribner

Quad Cities (29-8)

Quad Cities let a 5-4 lead slip in the 8th, but got the go-ahead run back in the 9th in a 6-5 win at Cedar Rapids. Joshua James allowed 6H/3ER, 1K:2BB in 5IP; Ryan Thompson gave up 4H/2R (1ER), 2K:0BB in 3IP, and Eric Peterson allowed a hit in the 9th.

Bobby Boyd was 3x5 with three doubles; Jacob Nottingham was 3x4 with a double, walk, and 2RBI; Sean McMullen was 2x4 with a two-run homer; Derek Fisher was 1x4 with a walk and two stolen bases.

Man of the Match: Bobby Boyd

From the Office of the County Clerk - G38: Astros versus Blue Jays

Mark Buehrle (5-2, 5.54) versus Collin McHugh (4-1, 3.50)

The Astros went for - and achieved - the sweep over the Blue Jays with a solid 4-2 win.  That takes their record to 25-13, which is now Officially the Best Record in the AL, and only percentage points behind the Cardinals for the Official Best Record in the Major Leagues.  With an Angels loss, the Astros extend their lead in the AL West to 5.5 games, with the Mariners a further 2 games back.  The .500 watch - the record if the Astros win half of their games from here - would result in the season ending at 87-75, which is a healthy margin above .500, and perhaps enough for a post-season slot.  So things are again looking up for Astros fans.  The introduction of a slightly weaker (read: problematic) pitching staff that the Blue Jays brought to town resulted in the offence again looking capable.  The Astros now lead the major-leagues in home runs.

Bear in mind that the season is still less than one-quarter done.  The Astros recorded their fourth season sweep - a feat that took the entire season last year.  Now, on to the recap...

On the Mound:
Collin McHugh has been nails for the last year in the major leagues.  Prior to that, he was regularly nailed - in that batters feasted off him, and there was no inkling of the success that was to come.  McHugh - who was tagged with the loss for the first time in 13-odd starts during his last outing - didn't have outstanding stuff, but he held down a tough lineup to allow 6 hits and one walk in seven inning, with nine strikeouts.  Two earned runs were all the Blue Jays could manage - an impressive effort given that McHugh seemed to be fighting his control at times.

McHugh conceded runs in the third and fourth frames.  Prior to that he was in a little bit of trouble.  Ezequiel Carrera led off with a solid single to RF, and he was bunted over to second by Josh Donaldson.  Gosh, any time Donaldson lays down a sac bunt, thank your lucky stars - perhaps a sign of a scuffling Blue Jays offence.  McHugh struck out Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnación on curveballs to end the frame.  In the second, Russell Martin doubled to RF to open the frame (the fastball missed arm-side-and-up), but McHugh bounced back to strike out the side (two on curveballs), stranding Martin at second.

Toronto scored runs in the third and fourth, both as a result of lead off doubles.  Steve Tolleson doubled on a grounder down the LF line, right into the corner.  He was sacrificed to third, then McHugh hit Josh Donaldson with a breaking pitch to put runners on the corners with one out.  Jose Bautista is in a slump, but not so bad that he was unable to drive Tolleson in from third on a sac-fly to left.  Encarnación walked, then McHugh struck out Russell Martin on an elevated cutter to end the frame.

In the fourth, the lead off double (the third in three innings) was off the bat of Chris Colabello.  Marisnick tried to track across for the catch, but the ball landed just out of reach, and Marisnick had to chase it to the wall.  Colabello was grounded to third, then Ryan Goins managed to drive him in with a sac-fly line-drive to LF.  Steve Tolleson struck out to end the frame - another curveball.

And that was it for the Jays.  McHugh retired the side in order in the fifth, and allowed a one-out single in the sixth - although he advanced to third when Handsome Jake threw the ball into the Astros dugout trying to double Martin off first - another throw of Marisnicks that he pulled glove-side.  In the seventh, McHugh worked around another Tolleson double with one out to post a scoreless frame.

Hinch was not going to let McHugh try and retire the heart of the Jays order a fourth time, so he brought in Pat Neshek to relieve.  Neshek retired Bautista, Encarnación and Martin in order - the there righties make for a nice matchup for Neshek, although he has miserable numbers against Bautista.  Neshek avoided deep counts, and went right after the batters, pounding the strike zone early in the count.

In the ninth, Luke Gregerson made it interesting again.  The first out was recorded without incident on a grounder to shortstop, then Kevin Pillar reached out and flicked a line-drive off the end of the bat between shortstop and third for a single.  Justin Smoak followed with another single over the shifted Valbeuna and into LF, and that brought the go-ahead run to the plate, and Brent Strom to the mound.  But Gregerson rebounded to strike out Tolleson on three pitches - the last of which was a fabulous slider - and Ezequiel Carrera popped out to the third-base foul territory to end the game.

At the Plate:
The Astros only managed to score half of their runs on home runs today, but they started early.  Luis Valbuena took a fastball that was meant to be away but missed over the plate, and he drove it into LF.  The ball started out more toward the visitors bullpen, but it sliced to catch the CF end of the Crawford Boxes, into the first row.  Valbuena has 10 home runs on the year, and it will be really interesting to see he hits on the season.  He has been hot (at the beginning of the 10-game streak), then cold, then he just missed a couple of home runs (in Anaheim), and how he seems to be hot again.  Going to be interesting.

The second inning was remarkable only for a Chris Carter single into LF (Goins got a tough hop deep in the hole), and the Astros went in order in the third.  The Astros tied the game at 2-2 in the fourth.  George Springer worked a lead-off walk on a 3-2 count, then Colby Rasmus walked with one out.  After Chris Carter struck out swinging for the second out, Jonathan Villar doubled on a line-drive to LF.  The ball landed at the base of the wall, and threatened to bounce up over Chris Colabello, who was covering it by facing the wall.  However, Colabello jumped and corralled the ball, and only Springer was able to score, with Rasmus going to third, and Villar cruising into second.  If Colabello hadn't made that nice play, Rasmus would also have scored.

The next six Astros went in order, but the next Astro to reach was a decisive moment in the game.  Colby Rasmus - against left-handed ex-teammate Buehrle - jumped on a first-pitch change-up and drove it into the upper deck in RF.  The pitch missed arm-side-and-up, and wound up as a middle of the plate, belt high, 78mph offering.  Rasmus didn't miss, however, with the drive eventually being measured just short of 400ft.  The Astros took a 3-2 lead.

They added another run in the seventh.  Jonathan Villar added his second double of the game, leading off against Buehrle, who went all 8 innings for the Jays.  Villar took an inside changeup, and drove a double down the LF line, into the corner.  Handsome Hank grounded him to third on something that resembled a a cricket shot: a back-foot on-drive to be exact.  But, joking aside, the ball was way in and off the plate, and Conger got something on it, and hit it slowly enough to shortstop to allow Villar to advance.  Handsome Jake then hit an inside fastball deep to CF - a few yards short of the warning track - to drive Villar in.  A Springer single up the middle was the only baserunner in the eighth.

Of the Astros hitters, Springer (1-3, BB) and Villar (2-3, 2x2B) were on base twice (as was Rasmus).  Valbuena (1-4) and Rasmus (1-3, BB) both hit home runs despite not having the platoon advantage.  Chris Carter (1-3) also recorded a single.  The Astros only managed 6 hits, but four of them were for extra-bases, and all four extra-base hits resulted in runs in some way (3 RBI, 1 run scored later in the inning).

Turning Point:
Colby Rasmus' discontent with Toronto was talked about a little bit over the last month of the 2014 season, and on into the offseason.  Well, tonight he got sweet revenge, driving in the go-ahead run on a gift of a changeup from Mark Buehrle.  Props must also go to A.J. Hinch, who decided to play Rasmus while sitting Preston Tucker, despite Tuckers' hot bat recently.  Hinch also injected the other decisive player into the game - Jonathan Villar - who is...

Man of the Match:
... thanks to his two-doubles effort.  Villar drove in one, and scored one as a result of those doubles - both of which were to LF, and hit on a line.

Goat of the Game:
Hard to hand out a Goat after a sweep.  Let's give the boys a break tonight!

On the Morrow:
The Oakland A's (13-26) ride into down on Lance McCullers Day!!

It is not every day that a team gets to bring a 21 year-old pitching prospect up from AA who pumps gas in the mid-90's, and possesses a hammer curve which he can actually control.  And tomorrow is one of those days.  Happy Lance McCullers day, everyone.  As I have recently written, this marks a vital point in the season when the Astros get to evaluate how McCullers can potentially contribute for the rest of the summer.  He will probably get two starts, which may give Brett Oberholtzer time to repair the skin on his index finger.  It is unlikely, however, that the Astros will progress to the end the season a rotation consisting of Keuchel-McHugh-Feldman-Hernández and either Oberholtzer or Peacock, so McCullers' audition may take on additional importance for later in the season.

Enjoy your day, Lance.

Drew Pomeranz (2-3, 4.42) versus Lance McCullers (0-0, 0.00)

8 Eastern, 7 Central.  I have a meeting, so I will sneakily try and listen on the radio.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G37: Astros versus Blue Jays

Marco Estrada (1-2, 3.54) versus Scott Feldman (2-4, 5.23)

The Astros have managed to quietly run off a 3-game win streak, after winning the first two games of this four-game set with the Blue Jays.  After being swept by Texas in an ugly series, the Astros managed a split of an away 4-game series against the Angels - their closest AL West rivals - then split a short home series against the defending champion Giants.  In neither of those series did they play particularly good baseball.  One of the two wins against the Angels was a result of a late comeback, and the other win was a nail biting victory after they blew most of a handy lead.  The lone win against the Giants was another come-back victory after they found some soft, middle-relief underbelly.

Some of this series has been more of the same.  For example, another come-back win on Thursday night, where they again struggled against the opposition starter opened the series.  Last night, it was all power, as they took and early lead, and the Blue Jays didn't really get that close, due to Will Harris averting a potential disaster.  But overall, they have looked much better against the Blue Jays thus far, which is great, because much of the last 10 days work of baseball has been borderline unwatchable.

The Astros looked much more solid today, riding a three home run barrage to a solid 6-5 win over the Blue Jays.  The win streak is at 4 games.  All of the Astros' runs scored via the long ball.  Four struggling players were the key to the game for the Astros.  For more information, read on...

On the Mound:
The Astros held the Blue Jays down for the middle seven innings of this game.  But the Jays opened strongly by scoring three in the first against Scott Feldman, who bounced back strongly to throw six-and-two-thirds, striking out 10 and walking three.  He gave up five hits, four in the first two frames.

Feldman struggled with both his stuff and his command in the first.  With one out, Josh Donaldson doubled on a rolling curve located down and away into the RF corner.  Jose Bautista walked to put runners on the corners, and when a Russell Martin line-drive split Springer in RF and Rasmus in CF perfectly, the ball rolled all the way to the wall, scoring both runners easily.  Martin cruised into third with a triple, then Justin Smoak - who Feldman has always had trouble with - dumped a single in front of Springer in right to score Martin.  Feldman recovered to retire the next two hitters, but a three-run frame put the Astros in an early hole.

A two out double to right by Devon Travis was the main feature of the second frame.  Travis doubled over the head of Springer, who played it perfectly off the bottom of the wall.  However, Springer failed to grip the ball properly on the transfer, and it squirted behind him as he was winding up to throw, allowing Travis to take third.  Josh Donaldson then walked, but Feldman bounced back to retire Jose Bautista on a cue-shot back to the pitcher to end the frame.

From that point, Feldman was pretty much nails.  He retired the side in order in the third, striking out two, then struck out another in the fourth.  Jose Bautista walked with two outs in the fifth, but Feldman struck out the side to keep that frame scoreless.  At this point, he was locating his high fastball which had some run, and hitters had trouble catching up with it.  Three consecutive groundouts in the sixth resulted in Feldman again facing the minimum.

Feldman came out to start the seventh, and with one out, Ryan Goins singled into left - the first Jays hit since the second.  After Feldman struck out Devon Travis, and sitting at 112 pitches, Hinch was not going to let him face the meat of the order again, so he called for Josh Fields.  Fields walked Donaldson to move Goins into scoring position, but he bounced right back to strike out Jose Bautista on high cheese to end the frame.

Tony Sipp them came on and struck out the side for a scoreless eighth.  Luke Gregerson entered with a 6-3 lead, and struck out Kevin Pillar before walking Ezequiel Carrera and enticing Ryan Goins into a fly out.  Then, with two down, and on an 0-2 count, Edwin Encarnación got a slider that was meant to be away, but was instead on the inner third, and he hit the longest home run of the night - onto the tracks, right over the CF end of the Crawford Boxes.  That cut the deficit to one, but Josh Donaldson popped up on the next pitch to end the game.

At the Plate:
The Astros started in a 3-run hole, and they threatened to score immediately.  Luis Valbuena singled with one out, then Evan Gattis reached on an infield single with two outs - ably assisted by (i) pitcher Marco Estrada deflecting the ball with his glove and (ii) Valbuena hurdling the ball right in front of the defender (Travis), contributing to the mis-play.  However, Preston Tucker was well fooled on a 1-2 changeup away, and they Astros were held scoreless in the first.

Hank Conger walked in the second, but the third was when the comeback started in ernest.  Jose Altuve walked on a fastball up and away.  Valbuena and Springer followed with fly-outs.  Evan Gattis then got a 1-1 fastball on the inner third, and he mashed it high onto the wall over the LF power alley.  Gattis knew he got it right away, and he put his head down, flipped his bat underhand, and took a leisurely trot around the bases.

Another Conger walk was the only feature of the fourth, and Estrada struck out the side for a very quiet fifth.  Jeff Francis started the sixth for Toronto, and Preston Tucker answered with a line-drive single to RF on a 2-1 count.  The next batter was Colby Rasmus, and he hit a long fly ball that landed in the CF-RF gap, just out of the reach of a diving Kevin Pillar in CF.  The ball bounded into the 'pen for a ground-rule double, and Tucker was forced to stop at third as a result.

But it didn't matter.  Liam Hendricks relieved Francis with Carter up.  On a 1-2 count, he tried to sneak a cutter/slider past Carter on the outside half, but he missed a little up, and Carter drove it the other way into the RF bullpen.  It was one of those effortless and short swings from Carter, and the ball cleared the fence by plenty.  Martin González followed by hooking an outside fastball into RF bullpen five pitches later for a solo shot, and the Astros led by 6-3.  Marwin's first good at-bat for a week or so, and more surprising power from the left side.

The last two innings were remarkable only for Colby Rasmus' lead off single in the eighth.  He advanced to second with no outs on a passed ball, but was a spectator for the rest of the frame as Carter and Conger struck out, and González grounded out.

Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis both went 2-4, with the latter hitting a long home run.  Preston Tucker (1-3, BB) was also on base twice, as was Hank Conger (0-2, 2BB).  Jose Altuve (0-3) walked once, and Valbuena, Carter and González all went 1-4, with the latter two hitting a three run home run and a solo home run respectively in the sixth.  The Astros would need all of those runs, as Gregerson made it closer than it could have been in the top of the ninth.

Turning Point:
Scott Feldman didn't look great to start with in this game, then he started getting the high-fastball past the Blue Jays hitters, which kept them off his breaking pitches.  The turning point was the last out of the second when Jose Bautista hit a nubber off the end of the bat to the 1B side of the mound.  Feldman tracked it down easily to throw Bautista out, stranding two Blue Jays on the base paths.  The Jay would have 3 more baserunners up until the top of the ninth, and that allowed the Astros to pull ahead for good.

Man of the Match:
Evan Gattis started the come-back, and went 2-4 with a home run and 2RBI.  Chris Carter hit a three-run shot the other way to take the lead, and Marwin González also flew one into the Astros' bullpen for a solo home run to add on.  Those three players accounted for all the Astros' runs, and consequently earned the Men of the Match honours.

Goat of the Game:
George Springer: 0-4 and an ugly error in right field.

Up Next:
Early game tomorrow for the last game of the series.  The Astros try to bust open the broom cupboard and go for the sweep.

Mark Buehrle (5-2, 5.54) versus Collin McHugh (4-1, 3.50)

2 Eastern, 1 Central.