Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thursday Morning Hot Links

*The Astros are 30-18, 6.0 up on the now-2nd place Seattle Mariners.

*A.J. Hinch was playing matchups by sending lefty Sipp in to face Chris Davis. (subscription)

*A.J. Hinch likes what he sees from Evan Gattis' plate approach lately:
His numbers are going to come back to where they're supposed to be. He's a good hitter and he conducts really good at-bats and it's nice to have him warming up.

*Orioles phenom Manny Machado asks Evan Drellich "What's the worst that can happen?" by promoting Carlos Correa.

*Dallas Keuchel is Jayson Stark's 1st Quarter AL Cy Young winner.

*Rob Neyer takes a look at the Astros' front-office approach.

*Here's the Washington Post on the difference between the Astros and Royals.

*The Philadelphia Daily News on the Astros' patience as a franchise.

*The Quad Cities Times on 2014 37th overall pick Derek Fisher.

The Astros' rotation order, and what it means

The Astros are again using an off day to re-adjust the order of their rotation, as the Chronicle recently pointed out in an article about Brett Oberholtzer.  I have written a little bit about this already this year, so further comment about what I think it all means may be in order.

So how did we get to here??

Well, the Astros have used four starters consistently all year.  Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh were locks for the rotation given their strong performances in 2014.  Scott Feldman was a lock for the rotation given his seniority, contract, and his history of reasonable effectiveness.  Roberto Hernández was signed as an article XX(B) free agent - or a minor league signing that can opt out if they are not in the majors, earning an agreed salary, by a certain time.  He pitched his way on to the team with a strong Spring Training, and he has effectively eaten innings in a league-average kind of way so far this year.

The fifth slot has been a bit of a carousel.  Asher Wojciechowski opened the year as the nominal fifth starter, but he actually started the third game.  Wojo got three starts and one bullpen appearance in the Major Leagues, throwing 16 innings and allowing 13 earned runs.  He has pitched a little better back in Fresno, pitching 22.2 innings in four starts, and allowing 11 earned runs.  A team like the Astros (i.e. planning to contend) would be unwilling to stomach starts of that quality every fifth day.

Brad Peacock returned from hip labrum surgery, and made a single start on April 14, initially replacing Asher Wojciechowski.  He lasted five innings, throwing 85 pitches, and noticed an intercostal strain some time after or during that start.  He remains on the disabled list at the time of writing.

Sam Deduno started games in early May (1st and 6th), but allowed 11 earned runs in 8.2 innings pitched.  His first start - at short notice - was fairly strong, but his second start was the opposite of strong, and he mopped up in two further games before hitting the DL with a back strain.

Approximately one month after Brad Peacock's return Brett Oberholtzer made his only start of 2015.  An index finger blister sidelined him during Spring Training and the early part of the season.  The blister problem re-emerged, and he lasted only three frames before heading back to the DL.  He has just started a minor-league rehab assignment.

Lance McCullers has made the last two starts in the slot previously occupied by the abovementioned four pitchers.  He was destined to have two starts before the May 28 off-day.  His spot was due to come up again on May 28, so the Astros could potentially have skipped him altogether and possibly optioned him to the Minor Leagues after his May 23 start.  However, after his last start - in which he showed much better command and control - he remained on the 25-man roster, which signalled that his opportunities to pitch would most likely continue.

The Astros now head into a 13-day period where they have no scheduled off days.  The 11th of June is the only off day scheduled for June.  The off day after that falls on the the 2nd of July.

So, the Astros have chosen to re-jig the order of their rotation again.  The new rotation with have McCullers going on May 29 against the White Sox on five days of rest, Kuechel going on normal rest on May 30, and Hernández going on six days of rest on May 31.  Presumably, Feldman will pitch with one day extra rest on the first of June, but that has not been formally announced.  Alternatively, McHugh could go on the 1st of June on normal rest, and Feldman could go on the 2nd of June on six days' rest.  A rotation of McCullers-Kuechel-Hernández-McHugh-Feldman holds some appeal in terms of the order if the starters, with McHugh stopping Hernández and Feldman going on back-to-back days.

With McCullers pitching in the first game of a 13-day run of games, it would be anticipated that he will also throw Game 6 (June 3) and Game 11 (June 8) of that run, unless a move is made.  Brett Oberholtzer was scheduled to pitch his first rehab appearance today (May 27), and he made the start, throwing 85 pitches and giving up 4 runs (1 earned) in 4.2 innings pitched.  The previously linked article suggests that Obie would next go on June 2 for a second rehab start on "normal" (6-man rotation) rest.  The Grizzles have no off days before the 2nd of June.

So unless Obie's finger blister recurs, or some other injury happens, he will be lined up with McHugh or Feldman on June 2, depending mostly on whether Fresno continues to employ a six-man rotation.  The 2nd of June would be only one day before McCullers' next start.  More importantly, McCuller's start on the 8th of June would line up nicely with Obie's "normal" 5 days' rest at Fresno, so Obie could potentially step into the rotation at that time without missing a beat.

So it seems that McCullers will have at least another 2-start audition for a regular starting spot in the Astros' rotation.  I doubt he will go more than six innings in either of those starts - not unless his pitch count was well south of 80 pitches after six frames.  If McCullers manages stick with the Astros, they will be interested in keeping mileage off his arm for later in the season.

But the concern I have around the Astros' rotation is more around the continued effectiveness of Feldman and Hernández, and, to a lesser extent, McHugh.  I think eventually, there will be a role for at least one of Peacock or Oberholtzer in the rotation, and if either or both return in June effective and fresh, then they could be important players late in the summer.  With the news that popular target Scott Kazmir left his most recent start with a shoulder problem, and with Buster Olney echoing popular sentiment that the Astros' starting rotation is the one weak spot in a run to the post-season, things are tightening up quickly.

The Astros may have to rely on internal options if they want to play in October for the first time in a decade, so Lance McCullers will get a good, long look.  Just don't expect any complete games from him - low pitch counts and quick hooks will be the order of the day.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wednesday Morning Hot Links

The Astros hit 30 wins last night and, with the Angels' extra-inning loss, FanGraphs is giving the Astros a 42.9% chance of winning the division and a 62.9% chance of going to the postseason.

*30-17 is the best start in franchise history, and it's also the quickest the Astros have gotten to 30 wins since 1998 (30-18), the team that finished 102-60.

Check out the Astros' record at 30 wins in recent seasons:
2014: 30-37
2013: 30-49
2012: 30-42
2011: 30-58 (!)
2010: 30-47

*The Astros scored all four runs from last night's win in the 7th and 8th innings, giving them 85 runs in the 7th or later - most in the majors. A.J. Hinch has a kinda sorta explanation:
We tend to have better at-bats as the game goes along. I don't really know why or don't have a reason, but we do. We lock in a little bit towards the end and, as we get runners on base, it shows up.

*Orioles manager Buck Showalter on Scott Feldman:
(Feldman) pitched pretty well, too. We didn't make many adjustments to patterns we knew were coming.

*Brett Oberholtzer will make a rehab start for Fresno today and could be activated as a long man, depending on whether McCullers stays in the rotation (which has my vote). The Astros are also moving Keuchel up between McCullers and Fausto to eliminate the possible need for multiple innings of relief on back-to-back days.

*Jose Altuve has a 600K-ish vote lead for starting AL 2B All-Star.

*Check out The Batguy's post on the Astros and 1B

PreStros Morning Report

TL;DR

*Org goes 3-1 on the day; cumulative 112-68 record
*Carlos Correa hit a homer on to the roof of a building across the street in Fresno's win over Memphis
*Vince Velasquez and Michael Feliz combined for 9IP, 15K:1BB in a 4-1 win over NW Arkansas
*Joe Musgrove struck out nine in 6IP and Brett Phillips was 4x5 in a 10-2 Lancaster win
*Quad Cities got shut down 3-0 despite Akeem Bostick's solid start

Fresno (26-19)

Fresno answered Memphis' 1st inning run with a run of their own and never trailed again, defeating the CardinAAAls 5-2. Asher Wojciechowski threw 6IP, 5H/2ER, 4K:4BB; Richard Rodriguez (1H), Jason Stoffel, and Kevin Chapman retired nine of the last ten batters they faced.

Matt Duffy (2B, RBI), Matt Dominguez, Tyler Heineman (2RBI) and Carlos Correa were each 2x4. Correa hit the homer in the bottom of the first to tie the game at 1-1, and hit it a long way. How long of a way? It was estimated at 424 feet and...
Man of the Match: Carlos Correa

Corpus (30-14)

Corpus and NW Arkansas battled to a 0-0 tie until the 6th inning, when the Hooks got a 2-run inning on their way to a 4-1 win. Vince Velasquez threw 5IP, 3H/0ER, 8K:1BB and Michael Feliz followed that up with 4IP, 1H/1ER, 7K:0BB for a total of 15K:1BB.

Andrew Aplin (RBI, SB) and Brandon Meredith (BB) had two hits each; Teoscar Hernandez was 1x3 with a walk and an RBI. Jio Mier, Tony Kemp, Jon Kemmer, and Roberto Pena added hits.

Man of the Match: Velasquez and Feliz

Lancaster (23-22)

Inland Empire answered Lancaster's 3-0 lead with two of their own in the 5th before Lancaster put up five runs in the bottom half, cruising to a 10-2 win over the 66ers. Joe Musgrove threw 6IP, 7H/2ER, 9K:0BB; Reymin Guduan struck out three in two perfect innings, and Frederick Tiburcio allowed two hits and a walk in 1IP.

Brett Phillips was 4x5 with a double and a 2-run homer (4RBI), A.J. Reed was 3x5 with an RBI; Jack Mayfield (BB, RBI), James Ramsay (2B, 2RBI), and Marc Wik (2R, SB) had two hits each. J.D. Davis was 1x4 with a walk, and Ronnie Mitchell drew two walks.

Man of the Match: Brett Phillips

Quad Cities (33-13)

Kane County put up two in the first, which was all they needed in a 3-0 win over Quad Cities. Akeem Bostick allowed 3H/2ER, 7K:0BB in 5IP; Brandon McNitt allowed 3H/1ER, 2K:0BB in 3IP, and Aaron Greenwood closed out the 9th with no hits and no walks.

There wasn't much going on offensively for Quad Cities, but Jacob Nottingham had a double and Mott Hyde got a hit and a walk; Sean McMullen and Ryan Bottger had your other hits.

Man of the Match: Akeem Bostick

From the Office of the County Clerk - G47: Astros in Baltimore

Scott Feldman (3-4, 5.17) versus Chris Tillman (2-5, 6.10)

I commented yesterday that this game was destined to be a pitching duel.  That was a sarcastic nod to the ERA of the starters, especially after Dallas Keuchel gave up two home runs and lost - both rare or unheard of events for 2015.  But Tillman and Feldman both have a history of reasonable success, and both have experience pitching at Camden Yards, so a bounce-back for both starters was probably more likely than not.  Tillman, in particular, has struggled this year, mostly due to an elevated WHIP (1.621) which, in turn, is contributed to by his worst walk rate since 2010 (4.8 BB/9).

So it's not surprise that the first run in the game was scored in the bottom of the sixth.  It is also no surprise that the Astros eventually got to Chris Tillman, after having traffic on the bases early in the innings on a number of occasions.  The Astros also did what they have done all year - hold slim leads with a solid bullpen, and beat up on the opposition bullpen.  What the Astros didn't do is hit any home runs, or steal many bases (only one).

The final result was a 4-1 win in favour of the Astros.  Read on for details of how this all shook down.

On the Mound:
Scott Feldman got the start (as you already knew if you had read down to this point), and he was solid through six innings and 92 pitches.  He allowed 8 baserunners on 4 hits, 3 walks and one error.  He struck out two - both strikeouts were timely and much needed - and he relied on three double plays (all in the first three frames) to maximise outs on ground balls.  A solid bounce back effort, and the first time since the opening week that Feldman has allowed less than two runs (earned or otherwise) in a start.  Feldman was also credited with the win, running his record to 4-4.

Ex-stro Jimmy Paredes singled with one out in the first (just over a shifted Altuve), but he was retired on a double-play of the 6-4-3 type.  Steve Pearce walked with one out in the second, and he was retired on a double play of the 4-6-3 type.  David Lough reached on a swinging bunt that Feldman threw away with one out in the third, then Caleb Joseph walked on five pitches, but Manny Machado grounded into a double play of the 6-4-3 type to end that frame.

In the fourth, Feldman narrowly escaped serious trouble.  Jimmy Parades singled leading off, then went to second on a wild pitch right before Adam Jones walked.  But Chris Davis struck out swinging on three pitches - the last of which was a back-foot breaking-ball - then Steve Pearce struck out swinging on a full count, ending an 8 pitch at-bat.  Both runners advanced on a double-steal during the strikeout, but all that did was to allow them to watch Delmon Young line out  to right from 90 feet closer to home plate on the next pitch.

Feldman allowed a two-out single to Caleb Joseph in the fifth, but otherwise faced the minimum.  In the sixth, Feldman finally allowed a lead-off runner to reach, and it was a big one, when Jimmy Paredes doubled to right field.  The ball bounced off the RF wall on the full, and ricocheted away from George Springer, who was hoping to play it straight off the wall.  He may have held Paredes to a single if it hadn't taken a crazy bounce.  Paredes advanced to third when Adam Jones grounded out to shortstop, then scored on Chris Davis' sac-fly to George Springer in RF, whose throw was up the first base line.  At that point, the Orioles had just taken a 1-0 lead.

When Pat Neshek relieved to start the seventh, the Astros led 2-1.  Delmon Young singled to open the frame, then Neshek set down the next three hitters on two line-outs and a strikeout.  Chad Qualls took over to start the eighth, and he set down the side in order on eight pitches with a fly-out and two ground outs.  Luke Gregerson got the assignment to start the ninth, and he retired the side in order on two strikeouts and a ground out.  The 'pen combined to allow one hit in three frames, and a bunch of solid relievers (Harris, Fields and Sipp) never even got to warm up.

At the Plate:
Some media outlets analysing the game in less depth than the hard-working staff at Astros County labelled the Astros' performance as clutch.  I beg to differ.  I thought they were decidedly unclutch early in the game, but when they finally broke through, it was just as much about the law of averages as anything else.  The Astros had the lead-off runner on in the first four innings, and on one occasion only got the runner to advance.  When they finally broke though, all four runs scored with two outs, hence the idea that the Astros were clutch.  But they had squandered a number of opportunities before that by not advancing baserunners and stringing hits together.  Many of their outs early in the game were line drives right at the outfielders.

The first three hitters were Springer, Altuve and Tucker, which is the first time that this combination has been tried this season.  Springer led off with a seeing-eye single up the middle on the third pitch of the ballgame, but Jose Altuve grounded into a double play on a 2-0 pitch to continue his recent flat patch.  In the second, Evan Gattis walked leading off, but he watched as the rest of the side went on a strikeout, a foul out and a fielder's choice.  Jason Castro walked leading off the third, but he didn't advance.  Preston Tucker walked in the fourth, but he was eventually thrown out at home on a Luis Valbeuna double for the third out.  Valbuena doubled to deep left, the ball nearly bounced over the wall for a ground rule double, LF David Lough played the bounce perfectly, and the ball arrived at the plate on a relay throw with Tucker still well short of the plate.  Well executed by the O's, started by Lough who anticipated the rebound very well.

The Astros dropped any pretence of wasting baserunners in the fifth and sixth, with the side going in order in both frames.  The seventh is when they finally broke through - just like the Orioles in the bottom of the sixth, a lead-off double from Evan Gattis the other way was the catalyst.  Gattis dumped it in front of and to the left of Delmon Young in RF, and he steamed for second, making it on a slide.  With one out, Luis Valbeuna grounded him over to first, but that left Carter up with two outs.  On a 2-1 pitch, Carter got an elevated fastball over the plate that he could handle, and he hit a hard line drive that bisected the shortstop and third baseman, driving in Gattis.  Jason Castro then doubled to deep right on a 2-2 count (a breaking ball that was supposed to be down-and-away, but missed over the plate, and Castro split the gap perfectly) to drive Carter in, scoring the second run in the frame, both on two-out hits. 

The top of the eighth resulted in two more runs, and again a lead-off double was the key.  George Springer doubled the other way on a line drive toward the line and cruised into second.  Jose Altuve followed by dumping a single into LF, but Springer had to hold to ensure that it got past the shortstop, so he only advanced to third.  Then, in a weird play, Preston Tucker grounded back to the mound and the pitcher Tommy Hunter made a great job of snaring the ball as it bounded high over the mound.  Springer was caught between home and third, and he ended up being tagged out, but not before Jose Altuve got to third, and Preston Tucker raced into second.  That positioned the Astros with one out and two runners in scoring position.

The Orioles pulled the infield in, and Gattis hit a slow roller right to shortstop.  If Hardy had been at normal depth, Altuve would have scored easily, but Hardy was playing shallow and his throw to home was right on the money, leading Joseph to the third base side of home plate.  Altuve slid into the tag, then onto Gattis' bat, with the knob of the bat rolling up the outside of his left shin, and over his knee.  Marisnick (who had pinch run for Preston Tucker) went to third on the play, then Colby Rasmus walked on an eight-pitch at-bat to load the bases with two outs.

Luis Valbuena, facing the lefty Brian Matusz (who had already walked Rasmus) got a 1-1 breaking ball that broke nicely over the middle of the plate.  Valbuena made no mistake, and he drove it deep over the head of Delmon Young, off the RF wall on the full.  Young played the bounce perfectly (unlike the poor bounce that Springer got on Paredes' double), and Valbuena was held to a single.  But both Marisnick and Gattis scored, which took the score to 4-1.  Colby Rasmus had cruised into third on Valbuena's single, then Chris Carter walked before Jason Castro flew out to deep left - narrowly missing clearing the bases for good - for the last out.  

A George Springer walk in the ninth was the final baserunner of the game for either team.  Springer had another fine game in the leadoff spot, going 2-4 with a walk.  He had his tenth double as well.  Gattis, Carter and Castro all went 1-3 with a walk, with Gattis and Castro recording doubles, and Carter and Castro driving in a run each.  Luis Valbuena went 2-4 with a double, and had the big hit of the game, driving in two.  Preston Tucker and Colby Rasmus both walked, going 0-3, and Jose Altuve went 1-5, but hit a couple of solid line drives and was robbed by Steve Pearce at.... (checks box score)... second base!  WTF?

Turning Point:
Chris Carter took a fastball over the plate, and hit a clutch single between the shortstop and third baseman to score the Astros' first run of the game with two outs in the seventh.  That allowed the Astros to draw level, and when Jason Castro split the RF-CF gap, Carter scored and the Astros pulled ahead for good.

Man of the Match:
George Springer was the only Astro on base thrice - a walk, a single and a double.  A.J. Hinch may have found a way of rounding Springer into form.  I would expect to see Springer and Altuve at the top of the order for the next few games at least.

Goat of the Game:
No goats, really.  Those that didn't contribute with the bat played solid defence or pitched well.  A goat would be unfair.

Up Next:
The rubber game of the series - Collin McHugh (5-2, 4.06) versus Ubaldo Jimenez (3-3, 2.82)

4:35 Eastern, 3:35 Central

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

State of the Astros: First Base

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 - Chris Carter

Carter is doing his annual act of starting off so slowly that people are calling for him to be released/traded/drawn and quartered. His walk rate is back up over 12%, but his strikeouts are back up to his 2013 rate, when he whiffed 212 times. Of course, that's kinda what Carter does the first couple months of every season. His April/May OPS for his career is about 75 points lower than his overall career average, so here's hoping he's just a chronic slow starter. The projections have him putting together about a .750 OPS for the rest of the season, though his career rates for the last four months would put him around an .800 OPS going forward. One potential area of hope is that his BABIP is currently just .232. Carter historically carries a lower than average BABIP, but a bump up to .270 or .280 wouldn't be shocking. This would still only put him around a 1 WAR player and he's already in his arbitration years. While his power means he's not worthless, his one-trick-pony act and escalating salary probably mean his tenure with Houston will soon draw to a close.

Reasonable end of season projection ranges

AVG - .180-.220
OBP - .280-.320
SLG - .380-.440

Backup

There really isn't a backup 1B. As with most teams, spare playing time goes to a utility player or outfielder. In this case, Marwin Gonzalez seems to be the main guy but Preston Tucker and Evan Gattis are also options. We'll talk more about them when we get to their primary positions, though.

Prospect - Jon Singleton

Singleton played his way to the majors (helped by signing a long-term, team friendly deal) last season but couldn't capitalize on his chance to secure the position long term. He's back in Fresno and improving upon his numbers in AAA last year. His strikeouts are a bit down (under 20%) and his power is up. That said, after last season's stint with Houston, it's hard to know what he'll do when given another shot. If he keeps hitting in Fresno we'll soon find out.

Prospect - A.J. Reed

Reed has the potential to be an outstanding power hitter. Prior to the draft last year he led all college hitters with 23 home runs, then added another 12 in his first taste of professional baseball. 2015 has seen him pick right back up again as he's already swatted 11 in Lancaster. Since Corpus 1B Telvin Nash was just released, Reed will likely be promoted soon. As a polished college bat, there's a good chance he could move quickly through the system and, if Singleton can't establish himself quickly, could hit his way into Houston in a couple years.

Summary

The only thing we know for sure for the Astros at first base is that whoever is there for the rest of the year will hit home runs. Beyond that it remains to be seen if Carter will heat up and/or get traded or if Singleton will take over and fulfill his potential or if he'll be a bust. So many questions. Currently I'll grade this first base situation as a D+ due to the immense uncertainty, but this could easily be a B+ or even an A if someone puts it together. Who knows.

Monday Morning Link Dump


*Richard Justice: The Astros are an absolute joy to watch

*Collin McHugh and spin rate - with a shoutout to our old friend Daren Willman

*Dallas Keuchel had not allowed 2+ homers in a game since July 2013. "I came out pretty bad," he said.

*Here's the Quad Cities paper on how they're so good on the road (17-5 this season)

*The Astros and Tigers had themselves an anthem showdown

*Bud Norris was so sick last week he lost 14 pounds and his parents came to stay with him.

From the Office of the County Clerk - G46: Astros in Baltimore

Dallas Keuchel (6-0, 1.67) versus Wei-Yin Chen (1-3, 2.90)

Not a wonderful start to the Astros' series in Baltimore.  The Astros squandered multiple offensive opportunities while the Orioles maximised their hit sequencing.  Both Los Angeles / Anaheim and Texas won, so both move a game closer to the Astros in the AL West standings.  Actually, a stellar day for the AL West, as the Angels, the Rangers, the Athletics and the Mariners all won.  But the Astros didn't.  They lost a tight one, 4-3.

On the Mound:
Dallas Keuchel got the start, and he was either dominant or getting belted over the fence.  Location seemed to be the problem on the two pitches that resulted in runs being scored - both seemed to be flat and elevated, and that simply isn't Keuchel's game.  Keuchel allowed a pair of 2-run home runs (in the second and seventh innings) and dominated in between, eventually throwing an eight-inning complete game, wearing the loss, and running his record to 6-1 on the year.

Keuchel faced the minimum in the first, but he walked Manny Machado on a 3-1 count leading off.  Adam Jones later lined into a double play - Chris Carter caught the ball off first base, and the runner (Parades) was toast, with Carter between him and the base.  Carter wandered over and touched the bag for the third out.

In the second, Delmon Young hit a clean single over the right side of the infield leading off.  The pitch was a little elevated - thigh-high and away.  Keuchel bounced back to record the next two outs, including a Steve Pearce fly-ball to the warning track in LF, before Caleb Joseph got a belt-high change-up and drove it just into the first row of seats in left field.  Tucker wasn't convinced it got out - it did seem to bounce off a fan who was leaning into the field of play, but the umps signalled it being gone, and the score was 2-0, Orioles.  The inning ended on an Everth Cabrera ground-out up the middle that Jose Altuve made a wonderful scoop-and-throw with his momentum taking him away from first-base - a play which underscored the improvement in his defence this year.

Keuchel faced the minimum in the third, thanks to a double play off the bat of our old friend and second-base wrecking-machine, Jimmy Parades.  The one-out "single" was a fairly generous call on a misplayed ball off the glove of Jonathan Villar at shortstop.  In the fourth, two grounders and a strikeout meant that the Orioles went in order.  Keuchel also retired the side in order in the fifth and the sixth.

The seventh was where the game was lost for the Astros.  They entered the frame leading 3-2.  Delmon Young started the comeback with a 1-out single up the middle on an fastball that was up just a little.  Steve Pearce followed with a opposite-field home-run off a thigh-high fastball away.  It didn't clear the fence by much, but it cleared it by enough, and Keuchel had managed to cough up his third and fourth home runs of the year in 70-odd innings of work.  His ERA remains below 2 (1.98), but he won't be happy missing pitches up, and my bet is that he bounces back and resumes pounding the zone down (except for elevating out of the zone deliberately) next start.

A single off the next battler was the last baserunner of the game for both teams - he was promptly erased on the Astros' third double-play of the day.  Keuchel stayed in to finish the eighth, ending the day at 98 pitches.  He gave up 6 hits, walked one and struck out three, but the four earned runs were an anomaly that he will not be happy with.

At the Plate:
The Astros were facing the Taiwanese lefty, Wei-Yin Chen, who has a smooth action, throws pretty hard for a lefty, and fields his position well.  He has been a solidly-league average arm over the fourth years and 500+ innings that he has thrown in the US, with 2015 representing his best year.  The Astros constantly had him working around traffic, with 11 hits in 5 innings, but were simply unable to land the knockout blow to give Kuechel a hefty lead.  The Astros bats went quiet when Chen left the game - they were unable to manage a single baserunner for the last four frames.

Example of how to squander baserunners:  In the first, Springer and Altuve both singled on the first two pitches of the ballgame.  Yes, the order was correct - George Springer was leading off for the second game in a row - no surprise really, after his strong game leading off yesterday.  Valbuena fouled out, Gattis struck out swinging on a fastball down the pipe, and Carter flew out to end the frame.

In the second, more of the same.  Preston Tucker singled into the shift leading off, then Jonathan Villar recorded a clean single between shortstop and third.  Hank Conger then bunted into an unusual 1-5-3 double-play, and Handsome Jake struck out looking on a fastball down-and-in for the last out.  In the third, George Springer took a hung change-up, and he drove it deep to the LF power-alley, into the upper bullpen.  That drive was listed at 425 feet, and he got most of it.  An Evan Gattis double to deep-right happened with two outs - he again peppered the CF-RF gap for another extra-base hit.  Chris Carter grounded into the shift for the third out.  In the fourth, Hank Conger hit a 2-out fly-ball that bounced half-way up the giant wall in RF, and he was forced to stop at second and watch Handsome Jake strike out for the second time in two at-bats.

The Astros took the lead in the fifth, having been down 2-1 entering that frame.  George Springer hit a lead-off single to LF, then Jose Altuve followed with a single through the 5.5 hole.  Valbuena hit a line-drive back to the pitcher, and Chen dropped it, then recovered to try for another 1-5-3 double play.  Valbuena beat Machado's throw to first, putting runners on first and second with one out.  Evan Gattis then struck out swinging after an 8-pitch at-bat - the pitch was a high change-up that Gattis could have driven, but he seemed to be sitting fastball.  Chris Carter then dunked one into RF, down the line, on a full count to score both Altuve and Valbeuna.  Carter and Gattis both battled Chen, and Carter's hit was clutch - a nice piece of hitting.  It came off a breaking ball that caught the middle of the plate.  Preston Tucker then singled through the left-side to send Carter to second, but Villar struck out to end the frame.

Chen was pulled at that point and the Orioles 'pen was perfect.  Handsome Jake struck out for a third time in the sixth.  Gattis struck out in the seventh.  Carter struck out on a nasty pitch in the eighth, and Rasmus was called out on a pitch in the RH batters box to end the eighth.  Wanna see where it was??  Below:



The side went in order in the ninth, with the game ending on a Springer street swinging on a 2-2 count.

George Springer (3-5, HR) and Jose Altuve (2-4) combined well in the 1-2 spots of the order.  Preston Tucker also went 2-4, and Gattis and Carter both went 1-4, with the former striking out three times.  Jonathan Villar (1-3) and Hank Conger (1-4, 2B) had the other hits, and Handsome Jake and Valbeuna both went 0-4, with the former striking out three times.

Turning Point:
I didn't hear this play being discussed anywhere, so it may be that I have it totally wrong.  But, in the fifth, Chris Carter was up, and he fought Wei-Yin Chen to a full count before hitting a wee blooper down the RF line.  It was fairly deep - around two-thirds or three-quarters of the way to the fence.  The ball landed a yard-or-two fair, and Delmon Young is as slow as molasses and was shaded to Carter's pull side, so it is unsurprising that Valbeuna scored all the way from first.

What didn't happen is that Carter didn't take the extra base.  I never saw a good view on TV or what happened, but with a bloop, and an overweight, immobile outfielder steaming over to the line in right, I automatically thought that Carter would take second.  Also, the throw was too high for the cutoff man.  But he didn't take second, and I certainly can't prove that he could or should have.

Why it matters is that Preston Tucker singled on a grounder to the LF-CF gap as the next batter.  If the infielders were positioned the same with Carter on second (and no guarantee that they would have been), then Carter would probably have scored on Tucker's single.  That would have scored a fourth run for the Astros.  Which may have been vital.  Who knows, and feel free to discuss in the comments.

Man of the Match:
Welcome back, George Springer!  His last two games has his OBP to .347 - adequate for a man leading off.  The organisation seems keen to have Altuve batting second, too, so it seems that Springer leading off may be a feature of Hinch's lineup cards for a while.

Goat of the Game:
Handsome Jake is very handsome, and had a great April.  Since then, he has been... um... less great, but still very handsome.  He went 0-4 tonight.  A Tucker-Rasmus-Springer outfield alignment has been tried a bit recently, and if Marisnick has more games like this, may become more common.

On the Morrow:
Scott Feldman (3-4, 5.17) versus Chris Tillman (2-5, 6.10)

Murphy's Law says this will be a 1-0 pitching duel.  A pitching duel that will start at 7 Eastern, 6 Central.

Monday, May 25, 2015

2005 vs 2015

A note before you begin: this was written during the Astros/Orioles game. All 2015 stats are valid as of the end of play, May 24. All 2005 stats ave been valid for nine years now. 

Hey whaddayaknow the Astros are good again! It's debatable the last time the Astros were actually good. 2006 wasn't a bad year. 2008 was going really well until Hurricane Ike hit and at least made an endpoint not so arbitrary. So we're back to 2005 when the Astros - of course - were in the World Series for about six days. Comparisons have been made between the 2015 Astros and the 2005 Astros, presumably because it's the last time anyone really had fun watching them, besides being interrupted by a terrible natural disaster. How alike are the two teams? Let's take a look.

Well you can immediately rule out Hot Start, which the 2015 Astros are enjoying. Ten years ago today (May 25, 2005) the Astros started the day 15-30 - bringing out the famous Tombstone edition - but would finish the season 74-43 and make the World Series. These Astros are 29-16 while I watch them play the Orioles.

How about roster construction? The average age of the 2005 Houston Astros was 30.4 years old. Craig Biggio was 39 years old, Jeff Bagwell was 37, Brad Ausmus was 36. The 2005 Astros got 436 plate appearances from 37-year old Jose Vizcaino and 36-year old Orlando Palmeiro. The youngest player on the team was 23-year old Willy Taveras. Chris Burke was 25. Everyone position player who received a plate appearance was 27 or over. The rotation featured a 26-year old Wandy Rodriguez, 27-year olds Roy Oswalt and Brandon Backe, 33-year old Andy Pettitte, and 42-year old Roger Clemens. The youngest relievers were Chad Qualls and Mike Burns (26) giving the Astros' pitchers an average age of 30.5 (Clemens and 44-year old John Franco didn't help the old average).

The 2015 Astros are obviously not veteran-heavy, at least not that veteran heavy. The average age on the team is 26.8 years old. Jed Lowrie is the only position player over 30. Luis Valbuena is the Old Man on the field, in his Age 29 season; Castro, Carter, Rasmus, and Gattis are all in their Age 28 seasons. Marwin is 26, Altuve and Springer are 25, and Marisnick is 24. There are a couple of veterans in the rotation, with Fausto (34) and Feldman (32), but McHugh is 28, Keuchel is 26 and for now McCullers is 21. All of the bullpen is over 30, with Qualls as the reigning sage of the group. So we immediately see that the 2015 Astros team is much younger than the 2005 Astros.

When judging offense, it's important to take into account that pitchers were hitting every 9th plate appearance. That said...


   2005 2015
Slash .256/.322/.408.231/.303/.415
K:BB (bat) 2.162.76
HR/G 0.99 1.42
Run Diff/Gm +0.51 +0.60
OPS+ 90 99
WAR (Bat) 18.1 5.3
K:BB (pitch) 2.65 3.15
ERA/FIP 3.52/3.84 3.56/3.53
GB% 46.4% 50.9%
ERA+ 121 115
WAR (Pitch)22.65.9

Of course we already have a full season's worth of stats for the 2005 Astros, and the 2015 team is currently playing their 46th game as I write this. What do we see? Nothing new or groundbreaking: the 2015 Astros have sacrificed average for power, and their pitching and defense is solid. So what, right? If we compare the 2015 Astros to the 2005 Astros, though, we see that the offense - including Gattis, Carter, and Springer - is keeping up with, and in some ways exceeding, that of the World Series team.

And the pitching. Well, then. I wasn't expecting this part. While the ERA+ is lower/worse for the 2015 team, the ERA/FIP is right there with the Pettitte/Clemens/Oswalt rotation. The 2015 groundball rate is the best in baseball, much better than in 2005, and the K:BB ratio is half a strikeout better than the 2005 one.

In other words - and maybe this isn't a surprise - but the 2015 Astros have a pitching staff at least in whispering distance of 2005, while the 2015 version has more power (the 2015 Astros' ISO is .184, 32 points better than 2005.

The roster is constructed completely differently - 2005 had what I would consider a more traditional offense - an offense built to win in the waning years of Biggio and Bagwell's careers and getting production from a few key players and positions. Chris Burke and Willy Taveras had an OPS+ of 76 and 75, respectively. Berkman and Ensberg, on the other hand, each had an OPS+ over 140.

2015 is pretty unconventional - built around young, controllable players presumably in their prime (or reaching it in the next couple of years) who are 29-16 despite four starters hitting .210 or under, valuing different aspects of the game entirely - getting groundballs hit into a defense that looks like the end of an electronic football game, with an offense that will swing for the fences and connect just often enough to win most games. Six of the starters have an OPS+ of at least 90, while four sit above 100 (Altuve, Marisnick, Rasmus, Springer). There is production - or at least the promise of production - up and down the lineup. It's not always pretty, but - for now - it's working.

From the Office of the County Clerk - G45: Astros in Detroit

Roberto Hernández (2-3, 3.99) versus Anibal Sánchez (3-5, 5.60)

The Astros entered this game down 2-1 in a four-game series against a genuine AL contender.  They had lost the first game of the series in extra-innings after a late-game comeback, and lost the second after giving up a bunch of unearned runs late (when already behind in the game).  Yesterday's game was a fun dance party, with the Astros walking off with a close win after a solid Lance McCullers start and a triple play.  So the Astros entered this game with a chance to lock it all up at 2-2, and run their record to 29-16.

And that is what they did.  This was another wild game, including another late comeback which underscores how much better than the opposition that they have been in late-game situations this year (the link is really worth a read).  The Angels lost, so the Astros' lead over LA improved to 6.5 games, with the Rangers overtaking the Mariners to sit a further game back for the third place in the division.  The Astros' .500-watch calculation has now them sitting at 87-74 after the penultimate game of the season, where they have been for some time.  So things are the best they have been for a decade, and games like this, where the Astros have shown some serious spine, only serve to confirm that impression.

Astros win, 10-8.

On the Mound:
Roberto Hernández and his 4.95 FIP took the mound for this one.  He was staked to a three-run lead by the time he took the mound, but he ended the first with a two-run deficit.  However, he bounced back to stagger through five frames, throwing 95 pitches in the process.  He allowed 9 hits and three walks, yielding seven runs (all earned), whilst retiring 5 on strikeouts.  Hernández has been good this year, but for those of you waiting for him to turn into a pumpkin, this start may serve to solidify your concerns.

Hernández opened the game poorly, walking Anthony Gose to open the frame.  Gose was the architect of his own demise when he was caught stealing two pitches later - a great throw by Castro was right on the money.  Ian Kinsler followed with a walk, then Miguel Cabrera doubled down the LF line to send Kinsler to third.  Hernández was missing arm-side on many of his pitches, and was clearly struggling for command and control of his pitches.

Anyhow, a sac-fly, then an RBI single followed, then a walk to Nick Castellanos after Hernández was up in the count 0-2.  An infield single loaded the bases - Rajai Davis beat Chris Carter to the bag after Carter fielded a hard-hit grounder hit near right to him, a fair way off the line.  Bryan Holaday then took a pitch that Hernández missed arm-side on again, and he hit a hard line drive into the LF corner, clearing the bags.  The Tigers had turned their three-run deficit into a two-run lead inside of eight batters.

A lead-off single in the second made it look like Hernández may have a very short outing, but Gose was erased on the next pitch due to a double play.  Hernández faced the minimum in eight pitches in the second, and ten pitches in the third.  In the fourth, Hernández retired the first two hitters in order, then allowed a clean single to Andrew Romine up the middle.  Anthony Gose followed with a double to RF, with the outfield shading the other way against the lefty Gose.  Hernández's pitch missed over the plate, and Romine beat the throw home from right field handily for the sixth Tiger run of the game.

In the fifth, Hernández again retired the first two batters in order before allowing a Yoenis Céspedes double on a pitch down-and-away in the sixth.  Marisnick had a chance to make the catch in plenty of time, but he dove, and the ball flicked off the top of his glove and bounded away behind him.  The non-play / "error" was compounded when Nick Castellanous doubled deep to RF off the base of the wall, scoring the Tigers' penultimate run of the game.  Hernandez enticed Davis into a grounder to end the inning.

Joe Thatcher relieved to start the sixth, and he retired the side in order on nine pitches.  Josh Fields allowed a double to ex-teammate J.D. Martinez, but he also recorded a scoreless frame, including a nasty strikeout of Yoenis Cespedes on an elevated fastball.  Chad Qualls worked around a lead-off single and a two-out bunt single to record a scoreless frame, and Luke Gregerson was staked to a three run lead, but he allowed a one-out home run down the left field line to Miguel Cabrera, (an elevated 4-seamer inside) then a single to Julio Daniel before fanning Céspedes and getting Castellanos to ground out.

At the Plate:
The Astros started very strongly, hanging three on opposing starter Anibel Sánchez in the first.  George Springer led off (Jose Altuve was resting), and he opened the game with a line drive to CF on a 2-2 count.  He took second on the next pitch, which was waaaay inside and got away from the catcher, Bryan Holaday.  Marwin González then reached on a bunt single, diving head-first into first and just beating Sánchez to the bag.  Luis Valbuena then grounded out, sending Marwin González to second, then Evan Gattis reached out on a ball 6 inches off the plate, and flicked it into the RF corner,  The outfield was shaded to the pull side on the right-hander Gattis, and Rajai Davis had to retrieve the ball from the corner, allowing Gattis to roll into third for the third triple of his career (and second of the series).  Springer and González both scored.

Rasmus walked, then Gattis scored on a balk.  Sánchez faked the throw to third - something that I have only ever really seen Roger Clemens do with any regularity - and both runners moved up a base.  The Rocket used to spin around and try and get the runner at first afterward.  I never saw the move have any success in terms of catching baserunners, and have welcomed the rule interpretation classifying it as a balk.

The second was remarkable for a line-drive one-out double that Jake Marisnick reached second on.  Davis in right seemed to misplay it, and the ball carried over his head.  In the third, the side went in order without much fuss.  Sánchez struck out the side in the fourth and fifth, with only a Springer walk on a full count the latter of the two frames interrupting the parade of strikeouts.

But the sixth is where the Astros did their damage.  Anibal Sánchez opened the frame at 85 pitches.  His 88th pitch was a low slider down and in that Gattis reached down and golfed to straight-away LF.  The pitch was low, and cleared the fence by plenty because of Gattis' power.  That hit vaulted Gattis over the Mendoza Line - hopefully for good - and the increased production from him in this series has certainly been welcome.

But the Astros weren't finished.  At that point, they trailed 7-4.  After a Coby Rasmus strikeout, Chris Carter singled through the 5.5 hole into LF.  After a Jason Castro strikeout, Jonathan Villar singled between the first and second basemen, sending Chris Carter to third base.  Sensing the need for more offence, A.J. Hinch sent Preston Tucker to the plate in plate of Handsome Jake.  Tucker worked the count to 2-1 before hammering a fly ball with his characteristic flat swing into deep RF for a three-run, game tying, pinch-hit home run.  The ball landed plenty deep over the RF fence, about 10 yards fair.  Sánchez knew it the minute it left the bat, and the Astros' celebrations were muted - perhaps a sign that they had more work to do.

They didn't waste any time getting that work done.  Marwin González singled to RF to open the seventh, then Gattis singled to right with one out to put runners on first and second.  Gattis utilised the large hole left between first and second, with the first baseman holding the runner on, and the second baseman shading toward second in case of a steal.  After a Colby Rasmus strikeout, a semi-intentional walk to Chris Carter brought Jason Castro to the plate with the bases loaded, and Castro responded by hitting a line drive on a 3-2 fastball in the hole between first and second.  Two runs scored, Carter cruised into third, and the Astros took their first lead since the first inning.  The score was 9-7.

In the eighth, Tucker singled the other way to open the frame - right over where a conventional shortstop shaded slightly toward second would be playing.  He was sacrificed to second, then Marwin González drove him home with a single to RF.  Tucker hesitated around third, but made it home when the throw was cut in front of the plate.  González was caught in a run down between first and second, but the Tigers left second base unattended, and he slid in without a tag.  The catcher, Bryan Holaday tried to cover second, and ended up sliding into González's ribs with his knees when González slid head-first into second with his arms extended.  It was a clumsy play, and González took a while to recover, but he ultimately continued the game.  Wouldn't be surprised to see him sit for a couple of days.

And that was it for the offence.  The Astros hung 10 runs on the Tigers behind three-hit nights from Marwin González (3-5) and Evan Gattis (3-4, BB, 3B, HR, 3 runs scored).  The ninth spot in the lineup also combined for three hits (Marisnick 1-2, 2B and Tucker 2-2, HR, 3RBI, 2 runs scored).  George Springer - leading off - went 1-3 with a walk, and Chris Carter went 1-4 with a walk.  Jonathan Villar and Jason Castro both went 1-5, and Colby Rasmus went 0-4 with a walk.  Only Valbuena didn't reach base (0-5, 2K).

Turning Point:
Preston Tucker has hit two home runs in his Major League career.  Both were in this series, and both were pinch-hit home runs.  Both home runs tied the game.  Tucker's line stands at .324/.419/.595, and while he isn't going to continue at that pace for the whole year, he has a swing geared for contact which is a great contrasting look for this team.  Despite his solid contact rates, however, he has some pop and some plate discipline, so he will be a hard man to return to the minor leagues anytime soon.

Man of the Match:
Well, that Preston Tucker guy only played one third of the game, so he can't get it.  How about Evan Gattis??  He finished a double short of the cycle (which is, as the Constable is fond of saying, like being one girl short of a threesome, although he normally quotes that when a batter is a triple short of the cycle, so I will leave it to him to comment further) and his average poked it's head above the Mendoza line.  If Gattis is breaking out, it is well-timed, because Altuve, Rasmus and Marisnick have cooled off, but Tucker and Springer are starting to get going.  So... look out!

Goat of the Game:
Valbuena went 0-5, 2K.  He is interesting with his 10 homers and all, but his average now sits under .200, and his OBP is a Matt Dominguez-esque .263.  I guess that this strengthens the idea that Correa may be brought up prior to the All-Star Break, and Correa and Lowrie can share shortstop and third base in some capacity from August onward, things going well.

On the Morrow:
The Astros complete their Memorial Weekend road-swing with a series against the 19-22 Baltimore Orioles.  The Astros have managed to turn their rotation over again, with a 2-3 record over the last five games, with only Feldman and McHugh's starts resulting in losses.

Dallas Keuchel (6-0, 1.67) versus Wei-Yin Chen (1-3, 2.90)

1:35 Eastern, 12:35 Central.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Morning Link Dump

Astros are 28-16, with a 5.5-game lead in the AL West. FanGraphs gives them a 39.2% chance of winning the AL West and a 58.3% chance of making the postseason.

*The Astros turned yesterday's postgame celebration into a traveling disco for McCuller's first Major-League win. (subscription may be needed - use this link if necessary)

*Infield coach Rich Dauer noted that Kinsler leads the league in hitting balls down the line, and positioned the infield to take that away, leading to the triple play. (subscription may be needed)

*Josh Fields could return today; Sam Deduno is a bullpen away from a minor-league rehab assignment; Oberholtzer will throw BP in Fresno today in advance of a rehab assignment.

*The Fresno Bee declares Carlos Correa ready for MLB. Grizzlies manager Tony DeFrancesco:
I've been around a lot of great players; Carlos probably is at the top of the list right now. Very mature for a 20-year old. He understands the game; he's in tune with what's going on on the field. I think he's going to be one of the top players for a long time.




Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/sports/mlb/fresno-grizzlies/article21995418.html#storylink=cpy

*A few days ago, reliever Chris Cotton has been promoted to Corpus from Lancaster. Cotton was the 14th Round pick in 2013 out of LSU. In 25.2IP Cotton allowed 20H/4ER, 37K:7BB

*The QC Times on yet another Quad Cities win.

*This Red Sox blog would like to trade Justin Masterson to Houston for Chris Carter.

*Here's a fun story on Nick Rozdilski, head groundskeeper at Corpus.

From the Office of the County Clerk - G44: Astros in Detroit

Lance McCullers (0-0, 2.91) versus Kyle Lobstein (3-4, 4.29)

Sorry, readers, but we have been locked out of the Office of the County Clerk for the last few days.  We had to wait for the Constable to get time to drive up, and show us which doormat the spare key was hidden under.  The three games we missed were remarkable for another Dallas Keuchel win (and some timely hitting), Preston Tucker's first career Major-League home run (and a game-tying shot to boot) and a tight game which slipped away when three late unearned runs were hung on Chad Qualls.  The Astros have gone 1-2 over the stretch where we were locked out of the office.  Entering today's game, they sat at a healthy 27-16, leading the AL West by 4.5 games.  Just over a quarter of the season has passed.  This is as good as it has been for a decade or so.

And what a time to re-join the game recap-pery!  This was an exciting game with Lance McCullers making his second start (and looking better than his first), a rare triple play, and middle-innings lead change in the Astros' favour.  Then, with difficult batting conditions in the last three frames, both teams were shut down offensively, with the Astros eventually winning, 3-2.  McCullers earned his first ML win, and probably the right to keep pitching another couple of times through the rotation.  How did it happen??  Read on...

On the Mound:
Lance McCullers did pretty well against a powerful lineup.  In the first, Cabrera singled with two outs - no shame there - but that hit was sandwiched around two strikeouts for a scoreless frame.  In the second, Yoenis Cespedes led off and reached on an error, when third baseman Jonathan Villar bobbled a hard-hit grounder, then rushed his throw and pulled Carter off the bag.  Cespedes was erased three pitches later on a double-play grounder, so McCullers faced the minimum in the second.

In the third, McCullers opened the inning with a 1-0 lead.  That lead lasted three batters: Jose Iglesias reached on a tough swinging-bunt / cue shot down the first base line, McCullers fielded, but ended up on his butt, and he was unable to throw to first in time for the force.  Anthony Gose then did everything but drive the ball out of the park - it hit off the wall at the 420 sign in straight-away CF for a double, and Iglesias scored easily.  Gose later went to third on a wild pitch, which resulted in Miguel Cabrera being IBB'd, but Julio Daniel grounded out for the last out.  After two strikeouts in the fourth, the scene was set for the fifth.

James McCann led off the fifth with a double on an elevated fastball away - the guy has killed the Astros this series.  Iglesias then reached on an infield single to first after McCullers had a brain melt and forgot to cover the base on a ball grounded to the right.  Carter fielded the ball behind first base in plenty of time, but McCullers had sauntered off the mound and plain forgotten to cover first.  Anthony Gose then grounded a perfect twin-killing ball to the right side, but Altuve threw wide of González who was covering second base. That put runners on first and second with no outs, and one run in, with the Astros trailing 2-1.

What happened next has only happened 10 times in the Astros' history, and not for the last 11 years.  Ian Kinsler chopped a hard-hit ball to Villar, who fielded it close to third.  He stepped on third, fired to Altuve on second, then Altuve got a strong throw off to Carter to get Kinsler by a half-step.  5-unassisted-4-3 triple play, and McCullers was out of the frame after he looked destined to put up a squiggly number with the heart of the Tigers order up.

And that was it for the Tigers O.  McCullers struck out two and allowed a single in the sixth, Will Harris struck out two in the seventh, Joe Thatcher was the grateful recipient of a solid Colby Rasmus defensive play in LF before yielding to Pat Neshek who retired the next two hitters without drama, and Luke Gregerson struck out two in a scoreless ninth.  The 'pen was great again, allowing no baserunners in three frames, with Joe Thatcher nearly coughing up a home run ball to Rajai Davis as the only blip (defensive replacement Rasmus made a great play at the wall).  Will Harris, again, looked outstanding.  As did Luke Gregerson for the first time in a while.  But the hitters from both teams seemed helpless against the shadows


At the Plate:
The Astros weren't great offensively this afternoon, but they were adequate.  Kyle Lobstein in a soft-tossing lefty, who is league-average at best at this stage of his career.  In the first inning, he gave up hits to the first two batters, but faced the minimum.  No, it wasn't because of a triple play.

Jose Altuve led off the game with a single to shortstop, but he was clearly out, and the call was overturned on review.  The umpire simply missed that one.  Jonathan Villar then singled past the third baseman Castellanos, but he was erased on a Springer GIDP, thanks to a nifty play from Kinsler and Iglesias.

Fast forward to the third.  Martin González - who has been a little quiet for the last month or so - led off with a double to left.  He lined it right over the third baseman's head, right down the LF line.  Handsome Jake grounded him over to third with a ball hit the other way, then Jose Altuve - by far the best contact hitter on the team - drove him in with a sac fly to medium depth in CF.  González scored without a throw.

In the fourth, the Astros walked the bases loaded with two outs before Marwin grounded out to short to end the frame.  In the fifth, Jonathan Villar singled with two outs - his second of the game - but he was caught stealing, going on the pitcher's first move.  Lobstein threw over to first, and Villar was toast at second base.  In the sixth, the Astros found themselves two down with no runners on before Preston Tucker singled over the shift into the RF-CF gap.  Chris Carter singled into CF on the next pitch, then Jason Castro singled just to the left of second base (but against the shift) to drive Tucker in.  Martin González then singled on an 0-2 count into the RF-CF gap, scoring Carter, who had gone to third on Castro's single.  Handsome Jake was retired for the third out on a soft line drive that nearly snuck over Ian Kinsler's head at second base.

That was enough to give the Astros the lead, and just as well, because Al Alburquerque struck out the side in the seventh.  The Astros went in order in the eighth and ninth as well - the hitters were struggling with the shadows at that point of the game.

Much comment was made about Hunter Wendelstedt's strike zone on the TV commentary.  The stats, however, don't really support the claims of gross incompetence.  McCullers didn't get a couple of high strikes, but he did get a couple of low strikes.  The strike-zone diagrams (from brooksbaseball.net):



Offensively, on Chris Carter reached base three times: 2-3, BB.  Reaching base twice was Jonathan Villar and Marwin González (both 2-4, with the latter lacing a double) as well as Preston Tucker and Jason Castro (both 1-3, BB).  Gattis, Springer and Marisnick all went 0-4, and Altuve went 0-3 with a sac fly.

Turning Point:
Guesses, anyone??  Awesome triple play turned by the Astros tonight.  Villar, Altuve and Carter were the architects of this one.  In 2004, the last time the Astros turned a triple-play, the participants were Morgan Ensberg, Jeff Kent and Mike Lamb.  Could any trivia nuts have recalled that??

Man of the Match:
I want to nod in the direction of Chris Carter, Jonathan Villar and Marwin González, but this MoTM belongs entirely to Lance McCullers Jr.  He showed a solid improvement from his last start, walking only one (intentionally) while striking out six in six frames.  He got into some trouble (some of it self-inflicted) but he also got out of it, assisted by a little luck.

It will be interesting who pitches the next game in the fifth starter's spot.  The Astros, potentially, could skip that slot altogether next time around, and if McCullers is optioned in the next few days, I imagine that is what will happen.  Obie will probably be ready to go for the start after that, so McCullers may be working on things in Fresno.  Even if that happens, however, I can't see the Astros getting by on a Keuchel-McHugh-Feldman-Hernández-Oberholtzer-Peacock rotation for the rest of the year - someone will get injured or catch a terminal case of the ineffectives.

Goat of the Game:
Pass.

Up Next:
The Astros try to level a tough away series against a top AL side by sending Roberto Hernández (2-3, 3.99) to the bump against a struggling Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 5.60).  In nine starts this year, Sanchez has faced the Twinkies three times, giving up 4 runs.  Against everyone else, he has allowed 7, 5, 3, 1, 9 and 5 runs.

1 Eastern, Noon Central.