Friday, October 9, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - ALDS G1: Astros in Kansas City

Collin McHugh versus Yordano Ventura.

By virtue of the Wild Card Game, the Astros didn't get to set their rotation the way they wanted to.  The Royals did, and they played the hot hand, with Yordano Ventura taking the ball for an important G1 of the ALDS.  Collin McHugh ain't no slouch on the hill, however, and he seems like a tough cookie in terms of his mental will and endurance.  Not the worst guy to have start a series.

The Astros have been playing elimination baseball for a while now.  G162 was an elimination game of sorts - really, the whole of the last two series' were - not to mention the Wild Card Game.  Contrast this to the Royals, who were the first in the AL to clinch.  Perhaps the Astros are a little more battle hardened.  Or alternatively, perhaps they aren't as well rested as the Royals, and don't have their rotation how they want to.

Well, the Astros played like a battle-hardened team tonight.  They made few mistakes, battled some tough conditions (both rain, and the rain delay) and were efficient getting runs across the plate.  Their 'pen was solid.  The Astros pitchers were perhaps the beneficiaries of some BABIP luck - some hard-hit balls from the Royals were converted into outs via some solid defensive work.  I am not wanting to take anything away from the Astros, however - they went into a tough home environment, got an early lead, and played better baseball.  They were deserved 5-2 winners, taking an important Game 1, which nullifies the home-field advantage that the Royals had.  The Astros have now won six of their last eight on the road.

Sticking with a slightly different format tonight - because most of you would have watched the game on readily available cable providers...

The Astros opened the game with a strong frame in the top of the first.  Jose Altuve took a slurvy breaking pitch inside for a single to LF, dumping it over the shortstop's head.  George Springer fought Ventura for nine pitches, eventually drawing a walk on a full count fastball that Ventura pulled glove-side.  Carlos Correa was in an early 0-2 hole before he evened the count, fouled off a couple, and hit a line-drive into RF on an elevated breaking pitch.  That loaded the bases with no outs.

I felt like I have been harping on about the inability of the Astros to move hitters over, or score hitters with productive outs this year.  That wasn't the case tonight.  With the bases loaded, Colby Rasmus stung one to the left of second baseman Ben Zobrist, and with his momentum taking him away from second base, Zobrist's only play was to first.  That scored Altuve, and the other two runners both advanced.  Evan Gattis then hit a slow chopper to shortstop to score the next run on a groundout.  Perhaps I am giving the Astros hitters too much credit here - Rasmus simply hit one hard, and Gattis swung at the first pitch, but the ball ran in on him, and he got more handle than barrel.  Valbuena struck out on a foul tip.

The Astros kept working Ventura in the second frame, scoring another run for an early 3-0 lead.  Ventura got the first two outs without incident - a Carter fly-out and a Castro K swinging - before Handsome Jake doubled to the LF-CF gap.  Marisnick got an 0-2 fastball that was elevated and over the plate a little, and he lined it into the gap.  The ball went all the way to the wall, and Handsome Jake took second standing up.

Jose Altuve was the next batter, and he took a high fastball away, and lined it to RF.  Alex Rios was playing in, and Marisnick was off and running with two outs. Pettis sent him, and Rios' throw looked to skid on the wet grass.  Pérez, the catcher, made no real attempt to glove it - he just blocked it with his leg padding, and made sure that Altuve didn't advance past second (although he did advance to second on the throw).  Marisnick scored without a tag attempt.  Astros led by three at this point.

McHugh was solid through the first two, battling drizzly rain for both innings.  A Zobrist single on a line-drive into RF was the first KC hit of the game.  Zobrist stole second, but McHugh bore down to get the next two outs without him advancing further.  Both outs were on grounders to the respective corner infielders - both were well hit, but the fielders were well (and also conventionally) placed.  Both Valbuena and Carter made nice plays.

McHugh gave up a run in the second off a lead-off home run to Kendrys Morales (perhaps the hottest hitter in the game right now).  The pitch was a 1-2 fastball inside and belt-high, and Morales got enough barrel on it to drive it out down the RF line, wrapping it around the foul pole.  McHugh rebounded to get the next three outs in order.  By this time, the light rain that had been coming down got a lot heavier, and the game entered a rain delay.

After a 49-minute break, the Astros grabbed their bats to start the third.  The Royals shoulder-tapped Chris Young to take the mound, and he brought nasty strikeout stuff into the game.  Young struck out Correa looking on a full-count pitch (a fastball that missed the target down and away, but ran over the inside corner), then walked Rasmus, then stuck out Gattis and Valbuena to end the inning.  And the strikeouts didn't stop there.  Carter, Castro and Marisnick went down in order in the fourth (on 12 pitches, too), meaning Young had struck out 6 of the 7 hitters that he faced in his first two innings of work.

McHugh, unlike Ventura, returned after the break.  He seemed to enjoy having a little more grip on the ball, and he retired the side in order on 11 pitches in the third inning.  In the fourth, McHugh was again victimised by Kendrys Morales with two outs.  Prior to that, Lorenzo Cain had lined out on a hard hit ball that sliced back toward Jose Altuve, diving to his right.  That would have been an easy single, but instead, the bases were empty when Morales took a 1-1 belt-high changeup inside, and he deposited it into the RF power alley for his second home run of the night.

The fifth frame was the crucial inning in the game.  The Astros entered, leading 3-2, and Chris Young had just struck out two-thirds of the Astros' order.  Jose Altuve opened the frame by dumping a soft liner into RF for a single.  He waited for three pitches, then he tried to steal.  Sal Pérez is fast in terms of pop times, and he was helped by the pitch, which was a high fastball that missed a little up.  Anyhow, the throw was perfect, and Altuve slid into the tag for a caught stealing.

I wondered at the time whether that would be pretty big.  I wondered a little more when George Springer pounded a high fastball away into the LF gap for a home run.  The ball was meant to be down-and-away, but it ran back over the plate, and missed thigh-high.  Springer turned on it, and hit a towering shot into the second row of the LF power-alley.  That description doesn't do it justice, because the wall is around 10ft high at that point, and the seats are fairly elevated too, so it was not a cheap home run by any stretch.

The bottom of the fifth was also important.  Collin McHugh opened by retiring Sal Pérez on a fly-out to CF.  But then Alex Gordon singled on a liner into RF, and Alex Rios walked on a 3-1 count to put runners at first and second with one out.  Alcides Escobar was next up, and he got a cutter away on a 1-0 count, lining it into CF.  The cutting action of the fastball took it off the end of the bat a little softening its flight, but Marisnick in CF made a great read, and he caught the ball coming in hard, and dove to made the catch.  It was a comfortable diving catch at the end - an incredibly difficult play that Marisnick made look easy with a great read, and great speed.  That was a crucial second out, and when Ben Zobrist grounded out to a shifted shortstop, the threat was over.

The Astros managed a similar feat in the sixth inning, getting a one-out walk followed by a Chris Carter single.  That put runners on first and second with one out, but a Jason Castro twin-killing on a full count ended that threat.  Castro reached for a fastball running away from him - possibly ball four - and he grounded it softy to second.  The double play was turned easily

McHugh came out for the sixth - Fields had been warming up in the fifth - and he retired the first two without incident.  That brought Morales to the plate, and he hit a hard liner on a 2-2 count to RF.  Springer made the play without trouble.  That was all for McHugh - a solid line of six innings, four hits and one walk, one strikeout, giving up two runs - both on solo shots to Kendrys Morales.  McHugh effectively managed an hour-long break in the middle of his outing, and he left the game with a 4-2 lead.

Kelvin Herrera pitched the seventh for the Royals.  He allowed a Marisnick lead-off single on a liner into RF, but retired the remaining Astros in order.  Herrera blew up Altuve inside for a weak grounder, and he struck out both Springer and Correa to end the frame.  Ryan Madson got the eighth, and he got ambushed by Colby Rasmus, who hit his ninth home run in his last 21 games.  The pitch was a first-pitch fastball (the first pitch of the inning, too) that was meant to be inside, but it missed a little up.  Rasmus smashed it all the way to the fountains in the RF power-alley - that home run was estimated at 439 feet.

Evan Gattis followed with a single into LF, but the remaining Astros hitters in the eighth struck out in order to strand him there.  In the ninth, a two-out Springer single up the middle was the only action.

Tony Sipp pitched the bottom of the seventh for the Astros, retiring the side on three consecutive groundouts.  Sal Pérez was one of the victims - he hammered a hard grounder to Valbuena's right, which Valbeuna stabbed, crow-hopped, and made an easy throw for the force on the slow-moving catcher.  Will Harris got the eighth - he got the first two outs without problem before Ben Zobrist hit a seeing-eye single up the middle, then Lorenzo Cain singled on a hanging curveball to put runners on first and second.  Oliver Pérez relieved, and he LOOGY'd Eric Hosmer into a foul out to third base, standing both the runners.  The wind seemed to blow the ball back out of the stands, toward the field of play, and Valbuena made a comfortable catch.

That set up Luke Gregerson for the ninth.  Gregerson struck out Morales for the first out, and quickly got ahead on Mike Moustakas.  He spiked his slider, however, and it caught the Moose in the foot, sending him to first base.  Gregerson - who has looked really sharp in his last few outings - quashed the threat by striking out Sal Pérez on a nasty cutter, and getting Alex Gordon to foul out to left.  Similar to the last out of the eighth, the wind may have brought the ball back into play, out of the stands.

The celebrations were fairly muted, and the Astros perhaps have a less favourable matchup tomorrow - at least from the pitching perspective. They are guaranteed to leave Kansas City with at least a 1-1 record, giving them the opportunity to close back in Houston.  If they win tomorrow, then KC is in a deep hole, especially with Keuchel on the bump for Game 3.

The Astros clustered their hits in the 9-1-2 parts of the order.  Handsome Jake in the nine-hole went 2-4, Jose Altuve went 3-5 and George Springer went 2-4 with a home run and a walk.  Carlos Correa had only a first inning single in five plate appearances.  Colby Rasmus - batting four - went 1-3 with a walk and a home run, and Evan Gattis and Chris Carter both went 1-4.  The Astros, however, struck out a hefty 14 times, but what really mattered is they outscored their opposition.

Turning Point:  The important inning of the game was the fifth.  The Astros ran into an out shortly before hitting a home run.  The Royals got the go-ahead run to the plate with one out, but an exceptional defensive play from Handsome Jake - who had a great game overall - meant that a vital second out was logged.  The Royals didn't score, and the Astros had a lead that they would not give up.

Man of the Match:
The outfield was awesome.  Long home runs were logged from Springer and Rasmus, and Marisnick made a stellar play on defense, and logged two hits at the plate.

Home plate ump Lance Barksdale.  Watch...

There are some awful calls there - calls that are inconsistent, and well out of the zone.  They mostly favour the Royals.

Up Next:
Scott Kazmir versus Johnny Cueto, in the battle of the struggling trade acquisitions.

3:30 Eastern, 2:30 Central.

Go the 'Stros!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Previewing the ALDS

So the Astros got to celebrate on an opponent's field twice in three days - firstly cementing their place in the playoffs on the last game of the season, then winning a one game loser-go-home Wild Card fixture against the Yankees.  I thought that the Astros were fairly "meh" in Game 162, and they certainly made plenty of mistakes that contributed to the opposition run total.  It is almost possible to argue that the Astros won Game 162 by a score of 5-3, because they pretty much scored two of Arizona's runs for them.  I mean, an opposition runner reaching on a catching error, then being balked home from third should really score a point in the Astros' run column rather than the D-Backs - the Astros did 90% of the heavy lifting for that run to score, after all.

As unexciting as they were during Game 162, they were totally the opposite in the Wild Card Game.  The Astros barely made a mistake all night.  In fact, the argument could be made that they feasted off one of a few mistakes that Masahiro Tanaka made - both those being the solo home runs to Rasmus and Gómez.  And the Astros have generally played much better in the last 10 games, as well, so perhaps they are getting hot at exactly the right time.  The Wild Card Game was much closer to the big wins in Game 160 and 161 in terms of how they looked... and Game 162 was more of an aberration for the Astros compared to other late September outings.

I think the Astros have also managed to progress to the best matchup possible.  They were never going to get to play the Rangers - the rules don't allow for that - so it was either the Blue Jays or the Royals.  The Blue Jays' murderers' row of righty power bats would keep me up at night, especially now that Skotty K and Keuchel have been announced as the likely starters for Games two and three of the Division Series.  The Royals seem a little more balanced, but far less scary in the power and reputation department.

Anyhow, lets dispense with the preamble, and have a look at some broad dashboard stats.

The reigning AL Pennant holder Royals proved that 2014 was no aberration by winning 95 games - the best in the AL.  The Astros, by comparison, managed a measly 86 wins (which is actually an incomprehensible number for Astros fans who have followed the team closely for the last five years). But the Royals came from the only division in the AL to contribute only one playoff team to the mix.

The AL Central - as a division - combined for 409 wins, which is reduced to 314 wins once KC's 95 wins are taken out of the mix.  The average AL Central non-Royals team, therefore, won 78.5 games.  The AL West won a total of 403 games, which averaged 79.25 wins for the non-Astros AL West teams, so perhaps the Astros had a slightly harder intra-division schedule.  The Astros managed an even intra-division opponent record (38-38), whereas the Royals feasted on the other AL Central teams (44-32).  Not much to see there.

Head to Head:
The Astros had two preseasons outings against the Royals at Minute Maid, but lets ignore those, mostly because the final preseason game was a battle of AAA lineups, as it always is.  The Astros and Royals next met up in Houston in late June-early July.  That was a three game series, which the Astros swept, winning each game by scores of 6-1, 4-0 and 6-5.  The next series was in Kansas City, and the Royals took two-of-three, losing the first game 4-0, then winning the next two by scores of 2-1 and 5-1.  All of those games were pretty close, but the Astros outscored the Royals during the season series by a score of 22-13.

The combined slash for the Royals amounts to a .269/.322/.412 line.  That places then 3rd in baseball for average, 11th in baseball in OBP, and 11th in slugging.  The Astros combined for a .250/.315/.437 line (21st, 16th and 2nd in baseball respectively).  The Royals and the Astros finished 7th and 6th respectively in total runs scored in baseball - but how they got there was quite different.

The slash-lines reflect the narratives around the two teams.  The Royals put the ball in play and hit for a high average, whereas the Astros swing for the fences, but that costs them in strikeouts.  There is a stark difference in home runs hit - the Royals hit only 139 (24th), whereas the Astros hit 230 (2nd) over the course of the season.

And speaking of strikeouts - the Astros hitters struck out 22.9% of the time - second most in baseball behind the Cubbies - whereas the Royals struck out 15.9% of the time - lowest in baseball.  The Astros walked more (8%, 10th) than the Royals (6.3%, last).  The Astros stole the third most bases in baseball (121) versus the Royals' fifth-most (104).

The Astros recorded a slightly lower ERA (3.57, 6th in baseball) than the Royals (3.74, 10th).  The differences get a little greater when FIP is the measure of choice - the Astros recorded an FIP of 3.66 (8th) against the Royals' FIP of 4.04 (15th).  Unsurprisingly, a large difference in pitching WAR is observed: the Astros had a WAR of 21.3 (fifth) against the Royals' WAR of 13.4 (fifteenth).  Both teams recorded low BABIP's - .285 and .286 - both in the top-5 in the league - which likely reflects a combination of weak contact and defense.

Interestingly, the Astros were a superior strikeout unit (7.99 K/9 - 12th versus 7.19 - 25th).  The Astros were stingier with walks, too (2.64 BB/9 - 7th versus 3.03 - 20th).  Both teams tended to not allow much in the way of home runs (0.92 HR/9 versus 0.96 HR/9 - both in the top eight in baseball).

So this may be interesting over a five game series.  The Astros walk more and strikeout more with the bats, but the Royals have a staff that doesn't record a lot of outs via the strikeout.  These stats are collected over a 162 game season, of course, so whether they make any difference over the next five games - or however long this series takes to finish - remains to be seen.

Where the Royals have a huge advantage is with the leather.  Their defense is, apparently, the best in baseball, according to UZR.  The Royals apparently saved 56.9 runs on D, with a team UZR/150 of 6.1.  The Astros were 19th on total defense (-7.6), recording a -0.6 on UZR/150.

Defensive statistics are difficult to interpret, and the Astros' shifting throws a massive spanner in the works of the Zone Ratings.  The Royals nearly certainly have a great defense, with a lot made of their outfielders last year.  The Astros also have a pretty reasonable outfield - even if Gómez can't play.  And the Astros' infield D is much better than in 2014, so that is something!!

This is a tough series to call, but I will point out - perhaps in vain hope - that the Astros may match up well with the Royals.  The Royals' bullpen is famously fearsome, so the Astros will need to get early leads, and try and hold them.  The combination of the Royals not really striking out many, and the Astros' propensity to walk and hit for power may be something, and it may not be anything.  The Royals may struggle to score of the Astros' starters if the Astros can induce weak contact.

I haven't mentioned the individual starters (or the starter - bullpen split) at all.  I will just make the brief comment that the Astros' rotation looks like McHugh, Kazmir and Keuchel, with McCullers appearing slated for Game 4.  This isn't the way that the Astros would have wanted to draw it up, but remember that Keuchel got BABIP'd to death in KC in July, and perhaps having Keuchel throw twice against a lineup that emphasises contact may have been hazardous.  Who knows.

Regardless, tomorrow is going to be interesting.  Looking forward to it, and looking forward to another three game recaps (at least).

See you at 7:30 Eastern.

Collin McHugh versus Yordano Ventura.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - the Wild Card Game, Houston in New York

Dallas Keuchel versus Masahiro Tanaka

The offices at Astros County will be empty tomorrow, as all U.S. based correspondents will be nursing hangovers.  They got to party in a way that they haven't partied for in a decade, because the Astros managed to record a famous postseason win over the Yankees, by a score of 3-0.  And because this is a one-game series, that sends the Yankees home for the winter.  The youngest team in the AL just went into the intimidating home stadium of the oldest team in the AL (by average age), and shut them out.  The storylines for the Astros tonight were around great pitching, athletic defense, catcher framing, power, speed and a solid bullpen.  Sound familiar??  It has been happening most of the season, as the Yankees found out tonight.

Because this game was nationally televised, and because all decent Astros fans - those who were not flying home from the West Coast, anyhow - would have been watching, I will do a slightly different format to the recap tonight.  Sound good??  Cool!

The Astros set their roster with 16 position players and nine pitchers.  They carried Mike Fiers as an extra starter, so seven bullpen guys were included.  The notable position player inclusion was Matt Duffy, who took the spot that many thought may be given to Jon Singleton.  The Astros' on-field lineup was predictable with the hot-bat of Colby Rasmus manning left field, and Carlos Gómez patrolling CF.  Luis Valbuena was at third, and Chris Carter at first.  Jason Castro was behind the plate - no surprise there - and the remaining three players were also no surprise - Altuve, Springer and Correa (who were also batting 1-3 in the order, respectively).

Tanaka started well enough against the Astros, striking out Altuve on a full count (swinging at a cutter up and away), and Springer (swinging at a cutter down and away) on a 2-2 count.  Carlos Correa was retired on a medium depth fly out to CF to retire the side.  Dallas Keuchel struck out Brett Gardner (fastball down-and-away) then walked Chris Young with one out.  He only advanced as far to second before Alex Rodriguez was retired looking at a high strike - a 2-seamer up in the zone.

The first run of the game was scored on the first pitch in the second inning.  Colby Rasmus was batting fourth.  When Tanaka missed a down-and-away target glove side, Rasmus pounced.  The ball would have caught the inside corner of the strike zone, but  Rasmus dropped the barrel on it, and he pounded it.  He walked slowly out of the box, then flipped his bat.  The ball landed deep in the RF power alley - about 20 rows back - and the Astros took the lead.

Evan Gattis then flew out to the wall on a pitch in a similar location.  This pitch was a cutter, and was down-and-away to the righty.  Brett Gardner made a nice play at the wall.  Carlos Gómez then grounded out - three consecutive balls put in play on the first pitch of the at bat - before Luis Valbuena singled to straightaway CF to take first.  Chris Carter then walked on a full count, as did Jason Castro, so the bases were loaded with the top of the order up.  But Jose Altuve had a 1-2 pitch rise on him a little, and he grounded it to third base, with the force out being recorded at second.  Inning over, but the Astros carried a 1-0 lead.

The bottom of the second was a very Keuchel-esque inning.  Two grounders (one back to the pitcher), a single and a strikeout looking (Chase Headley was caught looking on a 2-2 fastball inside).  No damage was done, and the base runner never advanced past first.

Leading off the third, George Springer doubled over Brett Gardner's head to the base of the wall in straightaway CF.    They pitch looked like a cutter down and away, and Springer went down and got it, hammering a line-drive to the base of the wall.  Springer couldn't advance, however, because of two grounders to third base and a fly out - one of the grounders was a very nice barehanded play to retire a hustling Gattis for the final out of the inning.

Keuchel settled in from the third frame onward.  Two more strikeouts - Brett Gardner on a 2-2 breaking ball away and Chris Young on a 2-2 changeup down and away - were recorded in the bottom of the third.  In the fourth frame (and nursing a 2-0 lead now), Keuchel struck out Carlos Beltrán on a full count before getting A-Rod to line out to Springer (who made a great play in the corner) and McCann to ground out.  In the fifth frame, Keuchel recorded two outs in the air to CF - one was well hit - but no Yankees reached base.

How did the Astros get to 2-0??  It took one pitch of the fourth frame - Tanaka was facing Gómez, leading off.  McCann called for a slider down-and-away, Tanaka missed arm-side-and-up, and the ball caught the very top of the zone.  Gómez may have been injured, but he wasn't going to let that one go by, and he pounded it to the back wall of the bullpen to double the lead.  The remainder of the inning featured a Valbuena strikeout, a Chris Carter walk, and a nicely-turned 3-6-1 double-play on a Castro grounder to end the inning.  In the fifth, the Astros were retired in order, and in the sixth, the Yankees pitchers faced the minimum after a Colby Rasmus walk was followed by a 6-4-3 twin killing.

The bottom of the sixth was pivotal in terms of the game.  Keuchel started by allowing a leadoff single to Did Gregorius on a hard grounder just to the left of a diving Altuve.  Brett Gardner was the next hitter, and he struck out for the third time in three at-bats - another breaking ball down and away.  Chris Young followed by hitting the ball hard to the left side of second base, but that is Carlos Correa Country, and he flagged it down to his glove side, underhand-flipped it to Altuve, and recorded the force-out at second.  Some comment was made regarding Gregorius' slide into Altuve, which was late and ended well past second base, but Altuve was unhurt, although he was unable to complete the double-play.

So with two outs and a runner on first, Keuchel gave up a hard-hit line-drive single to CF to Carlos Beltrán, which put runners on first and second.  Keuchel had given up three relatively hard hit balls - two grounders - in the frame.  A.J. Hinch took a slow wander to the mound, and with Chad Qualls warm and throwing in the 'pen, loyal reader Roseana would have had her heart in her mouth.  But Hinch left Keuchel in, and he responded by throwing a high cutter - in a similar location to where A-Rod lined out in the previous at-bat, but moving in the opposite direction (back toward A-Rod this time), and a little slower.  That was enough to keep A-Rod off the pitch, and he popped it up to Carlos Gómez in CF for the third out of the inning.

In the Astros' half of the seventh, Chris Carter worked this third walk of the game.  That brought Jonathan Villar out of the dugout to pinch run.  He stole second, but it took him four pitches to do so, and the fourth pitch was the one that Jason Castro struck out on.  Villar had taken a huge lead and the tag was well late, but he was in scoring position for Altuve's at-bat.  Altuve faced Dellin Betances, and on the second pitch of the at-bat, Betances tried for a slider down and away.  In freakish fashion, Altuve reached out, got the barrel of the bat on the ball, and flipped it into shallow LF.  Villar had plenty of time to score, and the Astros took a 3-0 lead.

So from there, it was a matter of shutting the Yankees down.  Tony Sipp threw the seventh, and he was solid in walking Chase Headley with one out, but allowing no other baserunners.  Sipp made a clutch 3-2 pitch on Greg Bird for the second out - after he struggled with getting his breaking ball into the sort of territory where a lefty may have a swing at it, he retired Bird on a perfect fastball on the outer edge.

Will Harris got the eighth, and he set the side down in order - two grounders and a pop out.  Luke Gregerson got the ninth, and he was dominant.  Carlos the Jackal went down swinging on three pitches, then A-Rod struck out swinging on four pitches.  Brian McCann grounded out on the first pitch of his at-bat, perhaps correctly working out that Gregerson had his command, and the first pitch he saw may be the best.  Both strikeouts were recorded on Gregerson's slider - a back foot one to Beltrán, and a slider away to A-Rod.  McCann's grounder sparked some serious celebration.

The big offensive contributors were (or course) the home run hitters - Carlos Gómez and Colby Rasmus.  Both went 1-3, and Rasmus added a walk.  Valbuena, Springer and Altuve all went 1-4, with Altuve's hit an RBI single, and Springer's hit a leadoff double.  Jason Castro went 0-2 with a walk - but considerable comment was made about his framing abilities - and Chris Carter did not record an official at-bat, walking three times in three plate appearances.  Altuve and pinch-runner Villar both stole bases.

The pitching was great.  Dallas Keuchel was a little nibbly to start the game, but he found his groove, and recorded 7 strikeouts versus one walk and three hits in six frames.  On short rest.  All hits were singles.  One batter got to second base.  Kudos to Hinch for removing him after six - Keuchel's hardest-hit balls were pretty much all recorded in the fifth or sixth frame.  I was a little surprised that he chose Sipp for the seventh and Harris for the eighth, but both were solid, allowing only one baserunner (on a walk) between them.  Hinch is clearly playing the hot hand in the bullpen.  Gregerson was dominant, closing out the win.

There was a whole heap of chirping about the strike zone on various social media sites.  The fans were also clearly on the ump in the stadium most of the night.  It seems to happen a bit with Keuchel - I guess people can't ever believe that a guy who might hit 91 on the gun with a tail wind can be such an electric strikeout pitcher (at least in 2015).  Lets go to the Brooks' strike zone plots for hard data:

Not a lot to see here, folks.  Move on.  Perhaps Houston got one call away to righties, but New York got one down-and-in to righties.  Both teams had a couple of pitches around the margins that weren't called.

So the Astros head off to Kansas City for at least three more games.  Extending the season at this point is highly desirable, and a quick 11-game win-streak would do a lot for the Astros' franchise.

We will have a preview of the series up tomorrow.  Happy celebrating, AC readers.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Just a quick reminder of how far the Astros have come

Remember when the Astros won their first game in the American League??  Bud Norris out-duelled the Arlington Rangers in the first game of 2013.  Photos like the one below were doing the rounds at the time - mostly because they were expected to be bad.  The Astros fulfilled expectations, winning only won 50 more games of the remaining 161.  This photo is from 1 April 2013:

Channelling that thought, I made sure that I took the following photo after the first game of the 2015 season.  This photo - because I am somewhat technologically challenged, is also literally a photo of the screen of my work computer (plus, hospitals block software that can take screen grabs for obvious reasons).

It is a terrible photo, and I apologise for that.  However, I was so pumped that the Astros were at the top of the AL West that I wanted to preserve that image for prosperity.  I needn't have bothered, because they stayed in first for most of the rest of the season.

Six months later, here we are.  The Astros are making their first postseason appearance in a decade.  If they get through today, they progress to a winnable matchup against the Royals.  The best part of it all, as I wrote in the G162 recap, was the you can easily imagine significant improvement in the Astros teams of the next few seasons.  There is hope, readers.

Best of luck to the Astros for tonight.  I will see you for the Postseason Game Recap in 8 hours or so.

Arbitration Projections Are Out

MLBTR has posted their arbitration projections. We'll come back to this in the off-season, but at least it provides something to think about other than the overwhelming nausea we collectively feel over the Wild Card game.

Here's what MLBTR's figures project:

Keuchel: $6.4m
Valbuena: $5.8m
Carter: $5.6m
Castro: $4.6m
Gattis: $3.4m
Marwin: $1.9m
Conger: $1.8m
Fields: $800,000
Deduno: $700,000

Keuchel's a slam dunk. What say you on the others?

Tuesday Morning Link Dump

In advance of tonight's Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium, here are some links for you to read while you pretend to work and can't think of anything but baseball.

*Don't miss our 1600-word Wild Card Tale of the Tape.

*FanGraphs' Dave Cameron: The Astros/Yankees game should be a bullpen affair. Lots of good information on aces pitching on short rest and the importance (and value) of bringing in relievers early and often.
*Dallas Keuchel doesn't care about that stat.

*Average tickets on TiqIQ for tonight's game are going for $180, far less than the $300 the Cubs/Pirates tickets are going for.

*Evan Drellich, on how the 2015 Astros were built. Keep reading until you get to the part about how huge Luhnow views the Dexter Fowler trade.

*Colby Rasmus stuck up for Josh Fields' camouflage suit, and a clubhouse leader was born, based on his apparently miserable experience in St. Louis:
I'd get there five, six hours before a game to just sit there and look at my clothes in my locker in a locker room where nobody really even wanted to talk to me anyway. And when they did, it was just to make fun of me about my clothes or things like that. To me, that's really not beneficial to a healthy environment. Call me a sissy or whatever, but I don't think that that's the way it should be.

*Jose de Jesus Ortiz, on how Club Astros was born.

*Jerome Solomon: The Astros' best is good enough

*Carlos Gomez plans to play tonight, but it's not really up to him:
I don't know. It's not be decision, but I should be there. That's on my mind that I'm going to be there. Tomorrow I'm going to come ready to start in the lineup and do my job.

*Collin McHugh is lined up to start a potential Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday.

*This is weird: Luhnow is "putting forth a new vision" that could result in altered roles or the departures of farm director Quinton McCracken and assistant farm director Allen Rowin. Luhnow "has already made changes in player development, letting go of a slew of people last week." Seven of the nine affiliates made their respective playoffs in 2015.

*Howard Megdal wonders about all those Evan Gattis triples (stealing an off-season blog post idea right out from under me).

*Steve Wulf on how the Astros arrived ahead of schedule.

*The Astros and Yankees both think they're underdogs.

*Girardi won't reveal the lineup, and A-Rod and Reggie Jackson have nice things to say about Carlos Correa.

*Joel Sherman wonders if the 2015 Yankees can channel the 2000 Yankees.

*Surprise! Both beat writers from Enn Jayyy Dawt Cawm think the Yankees beat the Astros tonight.

*The New York Post introduces baseball fans in New York to the Astros.

*Luhnow's first Major League game was at Yankee Stadium, and the bright lights and big city await the youthful Astros - a good read from Gordon Edes.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Wild Card Preview: Astros @ Yankees

This is strange. Usually when I would do series previews on Astros County it was early in the season, and the enjoyment of doing so petered out by, say, the third week of April. This is the first postseason series preview in Astros County's seven year history, and it's a one-game playoff, so this should all be qualified by saying "This is a freaking crapshoot." Still, in the interest of page views (I should probably set up something #OnHere that makes us money for page views) here is your tale of the tape heading into the Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium.

Season Series: 

Houston leads the season series 4-3, outscoring the Yankees 36-17, assisted by the 15-1 romp at Yankee Stadium on August 25. Other, closer games went as follows in 2015:

June 25: Dallas Keuchel threw a complete game shutout with 6H/0ER, 12K:1BB in a 4-0 win. Astros got four doubles, two from Altuve, and 2RBI from Evan Gattis.

June 26: The Astros had a 2-0 lead before a 3-run 7th from the Yankees provided the final margin. Vince Velasquez threw 6.1IP, 5H/2ER, 2K:1BB. Then Will Harris allowed a 3-run homer - two runners of which were inherited from Velasquez.

June 27: The Oberholtzer Game! The Yankees had a 6-0 lead on McCann's 1st inning grand slam and Chris Young's 2nd inning two-run shot. Next batter up was Alex Rodriguez, whom Brett Oberholtzer tried - and failed - to hit. This got him ejected and sent down later that afternoon. Hinch apologized to the Yankees, it was an ordeal. But the Astros fought back and after back-to-back jacks in the 5th by Correa and Altuve, tied the game up at 6-6, all runs off Masahiro Tanaka. Then in a horrible bout of foreshadowing, Neshek walked the first batter he faced in the 8th, the 2nd batter reached on an error, he got A-Rod, and then gave up a 2-run double to Mark Teixeira. Sipp gave up a solo homer to Chase Headley in the top of the 9th, and that was that. 9-6 Yankees.

June 28: Collin McHugh dominated the Jankees after they took a 1-0 lead in the 2nd, ending up throwing 8IP, 2H/1ER, 8K:2BB, 71 of his 106 pitches for strikes. Luke Gregerson got his 18th save. Correa tied the game when he hit a double, advanced on an error by Ellsbury, and made it around the bases to score a not-little-league homer. Correa later scored the go-ahead run on Evan Gattis' 64th triple of the season. Astros split the series.

August 24: Yankees win 1-0 on a walk-off sac fly after Scott Feldman goes 8IP, 6H/0ER, 6K:0BB and Oliver Perez walks the first three batters he sees in the 9th to load the bases for Chad Qualls, who gave up a deep flyball to Carlos Beltran.

August 25: Blowout! Also known as The Game Where Carlos Gomez Remembered How To Hit, Until He Hurt His Ribs (I'm working on the title). Gomez, despite going 8x18 in his first four games as an Astro, was hitting .192/.232/.256 up until the August 25th game. Then he smacked a double, homer, and 4RBI and from that game until the Intercostal strain hit .306/.362/.565.

August 26: A four-run 4th and a solid start from Collin McHugh gives the Astros the series with a 6-2 win. Gattis hit two homers.

Playoff Experience:

The Yankees everyday lineup has played in a combined 237 postseason games with 924 plate appearances.

The Astros' entire offensive corps has played in a combined 35 postseason games with 117 plate appearances.

Advantage: Could go either way! The Yankees could be so bored and jaded, and feel so entitled to a playoff spot that they forget there's not a Game 2. The Astros could be more jacked up and talented that they destroy the Yankees. Or the Yankees' faceless machine doesn't know how to do anything but roll, and they win. Or there isn't an advantage based on playoff experience, because it's a 9-inning crapshoot, anyway.

Experience in Single-Game Situations

The Astros are 86-76 in single games this season. The Yankees are 87-75 in single games this season.

Advantage: YANQUIS.

Recent Form

This is where it gets interesting. The Yankees went 3-7 in their last ten games, and the only reason that this game isn't in Houston is because of a balk and a two-run homer to Paul Goldschmidt. Still, they went 9-11 in their last 20, and 13-17 in their last 30 games. They're depleted. Weak.

But hey it's not like the Astros set it on fire and pissed on the ashes in the last month. Yeah, the Astros were 6-4 in their last ten, getting a crucial 4-2 road trip to end the season, but they were 10-10 in their last 20, and 13-17 in their last 30. Basically the Astros are a game better than the Yankees in their last 20, and dead even in their last 30. Of course, of the five AL playoff teams, only the Blue Jays and Rangers are over .500 in their last 30 games (both at 18-12). So whatever.

Advantage: Push!

Keuchel vs. Tanaka

Of course this comes down to Keuchel vs. Tanaka. Keuchel will be pitching on short rest and while I've made my feelings about his 6th inning last Friday known, there isn't a pitcher I'd rather have on the mound in a one-game series than Dallas Keuchel. I mean, I wouldn't trust Scott Kazmir to start my car right now. I'd give him the keys just to start it, come out five minutes later and he'd be holding the muffler and telling me my game plan sucked.

Tanaka, 2015: 24 starts, 154IP, 126H/60ER, 139K:27BB, 25HR allowed. 3.51 ERA/0.99 WHIP.
Tanaka, Post-ASG: 13 starts, 87IP, 70H/33ER, 72K:14BB, 15HR allowed, 3.41 ERA/0.97 WHIP.
Tanaka, last 5 starts: 32.1IP, 26H/11ER, 29K:3BB, 5HR allowed, 3.06 ERA/0.90 WHIP.
Tanaka, at home, 2015: 14 starts, 87.1IP, 72H/36ER, 78K:15BB, 3.71 ERA/1.00 WHIP.

Tanaka has been pretty great. Just because it's Keuchel doesn't mean this is going to be a walk in the park for the Astros, a formality before the Astros go to Kansas City to exact revenge on Edinson Volquez for breaking Springer's hand. Sure, the second part will likely happen, just not in an organized MLB setting.

If there's anything to feel good about, it's that Tanaka's worst start of the season came against Houston, but at Minute Maid Park. In that June 27 game, he allowed 7H/6ER, 5K:2BB and 3HR. That was actually the second start in a row he had given up 5ER+ and 3HR. Since that start against Houston, he has allowed a 3.31 ERA/0.94 WHIP.

And while we're feeling good about things, or not, we can at least look at his HR/9 (1.46) and see that it's the 9th-highest among pitchers who have thrown at least 150IP. So for a team that likes to hit BOMBZ, that's also, um, good.

Keuchel. We already know Dallas Keuchel. 27 of his 33 starts have resulted in three or fewer earned runs.

Keuchel, 2015: 33 starts, 232IP, 185H/64ER, 216K:51BB, 17HR allowed, 2.48 ERA/1.02 WHIP
Keuchel, Post-ASG: 94.2IP, 81H/30ER, 102K:17BB, 10HR allowed, 2.85 ERA/1.04 WHIP
Keuchel, Last 5 starts: 31.1IP, 30H/13ER, 31K:7BB, 3.73 ERA/1.18 WHIP
Keuchel, on the Road: 102.2IP, 98H/43ER, 77K:23BB, 13HR allowed, 3.77 ERA/1.18 WHIP

The most impressive thing about Keuchel's last five starts is that it includes the 11H/9ER outing at Arlington in 4.2IP. Keuchel's road numbers are skewed for two reasons:

1) Because his home splits are so good. Anything that's not The Greatest Home Record in Major League Baseball history is going to look a little lackluster.
2) 15 of his starts were on the road. In 10 of those starts he allowed three or fewer earned runs. There was the Arlington Disaster on September 16. Three of the other unKeuchel starts were in May and June, and then the only other road start where he allowed 4ER+ was on July 26 at Kansas City. So in six of his last eight road starts, Keuchel has allowed three or fewer earned runs.

Then there's Keuchel against the Yankees: 16IP, 9H/0ER, 21K:1BB.

Advantage: It's one start. Who freaking knows?


Dear God, please let Keuchel throw a Maddux.

The Astros' bullpen issues are well-documented and picked apart.

But the Yankees bullpen has been bad as well. Since arbitrary numbers don't require as much research, we can see that from September 1 to the end of the season the Yankees bullpen has allowed a .270/.363/.458 slash line. The Astros' bullpen in that same time frame? .284/.342/.453.

Advantage: There's no advantage right now.

Astros-Killers vs. Yankee-Killers

Astros-Killer: Chris Young. We have to stop Chris Young. Hit him. Give him syphilis. Do whatever you have to do, Luhnow. Dig deep down into Ground Control's Dark Web and pause the app causing murders and changing the weather to fire a brown note at Chris Young and make him poop himself in the on-deck circle. Chris Young is hitting the Astros to a .333/.391/.619 line.

Yankee-Killer: Evan Gattis. In seven games, Gattis is 11x26 with a .423/483/.885 line, 2K:3BB. Carlos Correa is hitting .333/.385/.583; Jose Altuve is hitting .348/.429/.565.

Advantage: Astros.


There's no use trying to predict this. Let's just hope there's a happy revenge flight to Kansas City on Wednesday morning.

Your Playoff-Bound Houston Astros

Jeebus. Who would have thought? I mean, yeah, I'm processing all the negative feelings that come with having lost the division to South Oklahoma, but when Cole Hamels titted out and rejected a trade to the Astros to join the Northwest Louisiana Rangers, there was a turn in the season narrative. "Nobody believed in us!" said the team with the $170m payroll and three future Hall of Famers. "We - the Southwest Arkansas Ramgers came and took it." Bastards. I hope they all get pink eye from rubbing their crotches on each other's pillows and I wish nothing but a lifetime of rocking back and forth with a Windex bottle of toilet wine as they mutter "One Strike Away" for the rest of the miserable lives they lead, in traffic.

But this isn't about the Metroplexuals.

Your Houston Astros are postseason bound for the first time in ten years. Nobody is more excited than the likely-hungover Hank Conger:

*Some people apparently got offended at the fact that sometimes baseball players use potty language when they get excited and/or make the playoffs.

*Rasmus: "To put it into words is crazy. Poppin' bottles is easier."

*Luhnow: "Hopefully they'll be making a movie about this one day."

*This is one of those things that, if I was morally bankrupt and a Rangers fan, I would find entertaining. But really I just want to punch a sackful of kittens.

*ESPN gazed into the abyss and unlocked the mystery of the Astros' success this season: Pitching, Home Runs, and Defense. So by being good at pitching, hitting, and defense, it turns out the Astros were pretty good. That's nuts. Why didn't they try that before?

*Oliver Perez: We're going to play one game and we're going to play like it's Game 7 of the World Series.

New York Media

NYT: Innocence is a virtue for the young Astros Do the Yankees think they can beat Dallas Keuchel?

Newsday: The Yankees have to solve Dallas Keuchel

NY Daily News: Yankees could have a problem with Dallas Keuchel

From the Office of the County Clerk - G162: Astros in Arizona

Lance McCullers (6-7, 3.21) versus Robbie Ray (5-12, 3.50)

So there we have it, Astros fans and loyal readers.  For the first time in a decade, the Astros are a playoff team.  Unlike the last playoff team in 2005, this team looks like it is on the upswing, rather than reaching the end of its shelf life.  Today - Game 162 - was not perfect, however: the Astros were denied the opportunity to challenge the Fort Worth Rangers for the AL West, then they were unable to secure home-field advantage for the Wild Card Game.  However, looking at the bright side, their travel plans for the next few days are now clear, and they don't have to participate in either a play-in game, or any other kind of Game 163.  Plus, the Astros enter the playoffs with an already fresh bullpen, with their best pitcher on the mound, and with an offense which has shown some encouraging signs of life recently - even on the road.

Playing New York at New York isn't the worst match-up in the world, either.  The Astros have a lot of fly-ball hitters, and I seem to have the impression that they hit a few outs to the warning track - which could get out at Yankee Stadium.  Rasmus and Valbuena - in particular - may get a Yankee Stadium boost.  Plus, Dallas Keuchel is an extreme groundballer, so the Yankees may have a little bit of trouble getting the ball in the air and taking similar advantage.  Looking at matchups on paper, however, is an exercise in futility - Keuchel (or Tanaka, for that matter) may have an absolute shocker, and the game may be gone early for either team.  It is going to be interesting to watch.

Anyhow, lets turn our attention to G162 for the next few minutes.  This game was an interesting one - it was fairly tight, with some encouraging moments, but in other way it was a microcosm of the Astros' season.  The Astros came back three times and looked like they had what it takes to pull it off, but they were ultimately done in by their own mistakes.  The bullpen again faltered - this was not a feature of the season as a whole, but was certainly a feature of two weeks in late June and the last five weeks of the season.  You could see a more mature (or less enthusiastic) Astros' team grinding this one out - perhaps the 2017 Astros would be more likely to grab a win in a situation like this.

Astros lose, 5-3, mostly because Paul Goldschmidt is awesome.

On the Mound:
Lance McCullers was the unsurprising starter tonight.  I am sure he wouldn't have gone if the Astros had no chance or catching the Rangers or Yankees - then the start would have fallen to a Dan Straily or someone similar.  Anyhow, pressure-wise, this was the biggest start of McCullers' career, and for the most part, he handled it well.  The radio guys made multiple comments about the lack of sweat, humidity and air pressure, and what that does to curveball grips and spin rates, because the Delaware clay that the balls are rubbed up with loses moisture and becomes all shiny.

McCullers started reasonably well, getting two outs without incident until throwing a 2-1 fastball up in the zone to A.J. Pollock.  Castro called for the pitch down and away, McCullers missed arm-side-and-up, and Pollock took him deep to dead CF for a solo shot.  It was a nice piece of hitting from a guy that has had a great season (.315/.367/.498, with solid defence).

McCullers had a solid second frame (only a one-out walk) before he loaded the bases in the third inning with two outs.  Steve Sparks on the radio commented that McCullers looked like he was keen to get back into the dugout and have a quick inning, and immediately afterward McCullers gave up two two-out singles.  McCullers elevated a 3-2 curveball to Phil Gosselin which was lined into RF, then he allowed another single on a similar pitch to A.J. Pollock.  Goldschmidt followed with a walk to load the bases, but McCullers struck Jarrod Saltalamacchia out looking for the last out on a 2-2 curveball that broke back over the plate toward the lefty.

The next inning was the critical one, in my opinion.  If this inning doesn't happen, Chad Qualls probably does not get to pitch in this game.  The inning started relatively well, with Aaron Hill fouling out to first base.  The second out should have been made when Jake Lamb rolled over on a grounder to Chris Carter.  Carter made a nice play coming in, and may well have been able to beat Lamb to the bag himself.  But McCullers was covering, so Carter employed an underhanded toss.  The toss was fine, but McCullers was tasked with catching the ball and standing on first at the same time.  The ball bounced off the heel of his glove, and rolled far enough away for McCullers to have no chance to get Lamb at first.  A one out reached-on-error later proved to be an important baserunner.

McCullers bounced back, striking out Chris Owings.  That brought Robbie Ray to the plate... and he doubled (!) on a slash down the third base line.  The pitch was a similar pitch to the one that Salty had struck out on - a curveball that started outside to the lefty and broke into the zone, and Ray hammered it along the ground just inside the third base bag.  Lamb stopped at third because of slick glove work from González, and Ray cruised into second.

Lamb scored when McCullers elected to pitch out of the windup, and balked.  It was a huge call from Jeff Nelson, the crew chief stationed at third, but it was correct.  The balk was the first from an Astros pitcher all year, and it proved vitally important.  Lamb - who had reached on an error - scored, and Ray advanced to third.  Socrates Brito ended the inning by grounding out for the third out, but the damage had been done.

McCullers came out for the fifth - no surprise there - and he again recorded some quick outs.  Then Paul Goldschmidt singled on a line drive to CF, advanced on a spiked breaking ball that Castro did well to keep in front of him, and scored on a two-out ground rule double.  Saltalamacchia took a 2-2 pitch, drove it deep to RF, and the ball bounced on the warning track and over the fence.  If Goldschmidt doesn't advance, no run would have been scored, because the next batter grounded out (simplistic analysis acknowledged).

Tony Sipp opened the sixth inning, and he managed to get the first two outs without incident.  Then Peter O'Brien hit a double down the LF line that wedged in the padding in the corner, and it was correctly adjudicated to be a ground-rule double.  Sipp then walked Socrates Brito, which resulted in Chad Qualls being summonsed from the 'pen, and he struck out Phil Gosselin for the final out on three efficient pitches.

Qualls stayed on for the seventh, and the game was tied 3-3 by virtue of the Astros scoring in the top half of the frame.  The scores stayed tied for no further outs, however, because A.J. Pollock led off with a single to RF, then Paul Goldschmidt followed with a majestic home run into the LF bleachers. It was a full-count-something-elevated - looked like a cut fastball or hard slider - that was located up and inside, and Goldschmidt turned on it, and kept it just fair, inside the foul pole.  The ball bounced off the back wall of the bullpen, so it got out by plenty.

That ran the score to 5-3.  Oliver Pérez relieved Qualls, and his outing was unremarkable.  Pat Neshek scuffled a little, allowing a single and a double to put runners on the corners, but he escaped by getting Pollock to fly out.  Neshek looks to be scuffling with his location, and both the hits seemed to be recorded on fastballs that ran too far in to the righty hitters. 

At the Plate:
Robbie Ray, who the Diamondbacks acquired as part of the Didi Gregorius trade, has had a solid season.  He opened fairly solidly, allowing a Springer hustle-double in the first.  Springer hit a hard grounder to the LF side of CF - medium depth only - and because Pollock had to come in on the ball, Springer took second on a slide.  It was all to no avail, however, as Correa lined out to third base, and Rasmus struck out swinging to end the frame.

The Astros managed their second consecutive one-out hit (a single into LF for Marwin González) in the second inning, and third one-out hit (an Altuve single) in the third.  Altuve dumped one into shallow RF, then he scored when Springer hammered a pitch that was meant to be down and away, but caught the middle of the zone.  The hit was a hot line drive that landed just to the RF side of CF, slicing just out of Pollock's reach.  Altuve had hesitated to make sure that ball wasn't caught, and Springer kept going past second - possibly to protect Altuve at the plate, although Altuve would have scored easily - but he was caught in a rundown and tagged out.  Impressive bit of hitting, but over-aggressive bit of baserunning.  Probably wouldn't have mattered, however, because the next two hitters struck out.

The Astros managed another one-out single in the fourth - a Chris Carter grounder that was unable to be cleanly fielded by the third baseman.  They immediately followed with another single (a González single to left which looked very similar to the second inning) to put runners on first and second.  But Jed Lowrie - who looked late on the fastball all night - and Jason Castro - who couldn't lay off breaking balls - struck out to end the frame without damage.  Ray had struck out the side while allowing two hits.

In the fifth inning, the Astros - gasp - managed a one-out hit.  This one was a triple from Jose Altuve, who hit a hard grounder down the LF line.  Altuve motored for second, then the ball clanged around in the corner in full sight of Altuve, so he gunned for third.  The throw in was offline - it would have needed to have been perfect for there to be a play on the wee guy - and the Astros had a man at third with one out.  

The next batter was George Springer, and we worked a 1-2 pitch off his lead elbow to reach base.  Then Carlos Correa walked on a full count to load the bases.  Evan Gattis pinch hit for Colby Rasmus, and he beat out a grounder to shortstop that recorded a lone out at second base.  Chris Carter followed by striking out against the reliever, Randall Delgado, who pitched really well.  

Randall Delgado retired the side in order in the sixth.  In the seventh, the Astros didn't record a one-out hit, but did record a two-out walk to George Springer instead.  Then Carlos Correa singled to left field - a line drive pretty much right to the fielder - and somehow Springer went first-to-third.  That put runners on the corners for Handsome Jake Marisnick who had a 2-0 count when Daniel Hudson's low fastball eluded Salty and bounced toward the Astros' dugout.  The carom was so extreme that Correa went first to third on it.  However, Marisnick turned a 3-0 count into a strikeout three pitches later, and Correa was stranded at third.

Brad Ziegler pitched the last two innings for the Diamondbacks.  He allowed a two-out single in the eighth to dancing robot Hank Conger, then allowed the first two runners to reach in the ninth.  The second of these runners was Jose Altuve, and that hit meant that he recorded 200 on the season.  However, a George Springer double-play on a hard-hit grounder up the middle erased the game tying run off of the bases, and Carlos Correa grounded out for the last out.  Regular season over, and the Astros were unable to catch the Yankees.

The box score is again interesting.  The top of the order (Jose Altuve - 3-5, 3B - and George Springer - 2-3, BB, HBP, 2x2B) dominated.  After that, it gets a little patchy.  Carlos Correa went 1-4 with a walk, Colby Rasmus went 0-2 with 2K, Chris Cartet went 1-4 with 2K and Marwin González went 2-3.  However, Jed Lowrie struck out three times in three at-bats, Jason Castro struck out three times in four at-bats, and Lance McCullers isn't expected to be able to hit.

Turning Point:
The Astros' fielding miscues were the turning points of this game.  The fourth inning error resulted in Jake Lamb reaching on a catching error from Lance McCullers and later scoring from third on a balk.  The fifth inning involved a two-out single from Paul Goldschmidt who advanced on a spiked curveball, then scored on a ground-rule.  If neither of those runs scored, the two teams may still be playing in a tied game, but I would have pegged the advantage to the Astros because of the state of the relative bullpens.  

Man of the Match:
Jose Altuve has not managed to attain the levels of success that he had last season, but he is still a nasty hitting machine.  When Altuve and Springer hit the ball hard at the top of the order, the Astros look like a side with serious postseason potential.  Altuve scored two of the three runs today, and his 200th hit breaks a tie with George Springer for the MoTM.

Goat of the Game:
Jed Lowrie is in a wee slump.  1-for-his-last-24 or thereabouts, I believe.  He was regularly busted inside today.  Not good.  Jed is important for this team, as he normally represents one of the harder outs of the lineup.  If his timing returns, then he could be an important weapon.

Up Next:
The postseason, baby!!  I didn't dare to imagine this at the beginning of the season.  The Wild-Card Game is much better than fourth place in the West.  Well done, Astros!

Houston versus New York... Dallas Keuchel versus Masahiro Tanaka

Tuesday 6 Sept, 8 Eastern, 7 Central.

This will be worth a watch.