aka Battle of the Veteran Righties Who Were Crazy Good in April, but Have Struggled Since. 2014 ERA's by month - Feldman: 1.69, 4.71, 6.38; Harang: 2.97, 3.68, 5.32.
'Twas always going to be an interesting contest between two old NL rivals. Sadly, Atlanta - if I heard this correctly - has owned the Astros recently, winning 7 straight. That continued today, with the Astros going down in a close 3-2 loss. This was a game of missed opportunities for the 'stros, and the recent themes of starting pitching being not quite good enough, problems with clutch and contact hitting, and large black holes in the order killing rallies continued.
As you may have guessed, I am standing in for Cockroach, who is scouting the AA All Star Game tonight. Excellent! He will be back for the remainder of this series.
As you also may have guessed, I am a little frustrated on the Astros behalf. They are close to being a solid baseball team. Just the little things that good teams do are being missed. Like converting difficult double-plays, clutch hitting, and guys that don't go into prolonged slumps for extended periods of time. All at once. Sigh.
That said, I also get the learning curve that guys like Villar and Springleton are on. This time next year, that kind of stuff could all be dropping into place nicely.
On the Mound:
In many ways, Scott Feldman did pretty much exactly what is expected of him: take the ball every five days and put together starts that give the Astros a chance. He was solid through 107 pitches, going 6IP, 4H, 3R/ER, BB, 5K. He kept runners off base, but was far from dominant. He was somewhat unlucky to yield three runs on five base runners, but that is what happens when you give up two long balls, discussed further below.
After a solid first inning, Feldman gave up a one-out triple to Jason Heywood, who hit a long line drive to the base of the Astros bullpen. His slide into third base was just for show - he could have moon-walked into third and still been safe. Feldman then had to face Justin Upton, and he struck him out on a fantastic 3-2 sinker low and away. Feldman started well against the next hitter, Chris Johnson, but a great piece of hitting saw him fist off a high and tight fastball, hitting a soft liner into right-centre field to score Heywood. That was the Braves' first run.
If one was being critical or snarky, then the argument could be made that Feldman's middle name should be "slump-buster". B.J. Upton entered the game having gone one-for-his-last-18, and he hit hanging breaking ball halfway into the Crawford Boxes with one out in the third for a solo home run. His brother Justin, entering the game batting .135 in his last nine games, touched up Feldman for a long, no doubt solo home run off the community leaders signs in left-centre in the bottom of the fourth. 3-1 Braves (at the time), and all the runs they would need. Slumps busted!
Josh Zied relieved, and gave up two hits in a scoreless inning. He pitched out of a mini-jam in the seventh with two-on-and-one-out after an Andrelton Simmons bunt base hit. A double-play ball was not converted after a mound come-backer, but he eventually retired B.J. Upton with runners on the corner to end the inning.
Tony Sipp got the next four outs in perfect fashion, striking out Evan Gattis in the process. He was pumping gas in the mid-90's - after sitting out the whole Tampa series and a day off yesterday, his heater seemed to have a little more giddy-up than normal. Chad Qualls didn't allow a baserunner getting the final two outs, including a three pitch strikeout of ex-stro, Chris Johnson.
At the Plate:
The game started well, with a George Springer 2-out, solo home run to Centre. It was measured at 441', and landed in the restaurant just to the right edge of Tal's Hill. Smoked! 'Twas a big hit - I cannot recall a lot of shots there, but I do recall some spectacular catches and non-catches on the hill, where flyballs to centre normally go to die.
In the bottom of the second, the ongoing familiar themes began to reassert themselves. Jason Castro (2-4, R) and Chris Carter (who had a good night - 2-3, BB, K) singled with one out. Robbie Grossman came to the plate, and looked at a breaking ball first pitch for a strike. It was right down the middle, and elevated. Then a fastball in, and he was 0-2. He struck out on the next pitch. Villar ended the inning with a hard liner into right - 10 yards either side and he could be standing on second with two runners in.
I can kind of understand the bottom of the second - stuff happens when the bottom of the order is up - but the bottom of the third was all-too-familiar for fans of the Astros over the last few years. Fowler (0-4, BB) led off with a walk, and attempted a steal on an 0-1 count. Altuve did what Altuve does (2-5, SB) and made hard contact on a pitch away, grounding it to where the second baseman would have been. But Tommy La Stella was moving to cover second, and the ball bounced untouched into RF. Runners at the corners, no outs, heart of the order up.
And you know how this ends. Springer hit a high chopper to third, and the force at second ensured, with Fowler wisely staying put at third. Singleton nearly immediately grounded into a double play - no runs scored. Insert anguished cry here.
The Astros their second and final run in the fourth. Matt Dominguez (0-3, BB) opened the inning with a line-out, then Castro and Carter hit back to back singles. Grossman flew out to CF - a hard hit ball that allowed Castro to advance - and Villar (1-3, BB and all of his bats were solid at bats) singled to right, splitting the first and second basemen on a hard grounder for an RBI. Fowler K'd looking on an inside 3-2 pitch that was perfectly placed - he had words with the umpire, but in a shocking set of circumstances, Ump didn't change his call. And Ump was also right.
Harang settled down after the fourth, retiring the side in order in the fifth and sixth. However, the Astros had opportunities in all three remaining innings. Grossman led off the seventh with a strikeout looking, Villar walked, Fowler K'd, and Altuve singled, with Villar going to third, and Altuve advancing to second on the throw. Springer grounded out weakly to short to end the inning.
Bottom of the eighth - more of the same. Singleton K, Dominguez walk, Castro foul out, Carter single getting runners on the corners. Grossman K - end of inning. And the ninth?? Villar groundout, Fowler reached on error, Altuve fielders' choice (then stolen base), Springer K. End of game.
One more run would have tied the game. The Astros were 1-10 with runners in scoring position, including a Grossman 0-3 and a Springer 0-3. Ten ducks stranded on the pond overall. Insert strangled cry of frustration here.
Although it was early in the game, having runners on the corner with no outs and the middle of the order up - then not scoring - typified the Astros night. Harang is no slouch and he pitched his way out of it, so you have to tip your hat to him. But the frustrations about the Astros getting on base more than enough, and not converting, continued. And it is costing them games.
Man of the Match:
I like Villar for his efforts today. I watched his at-bats closely. He worked an excellent walk in the seventh, hit a couple of balls hard, and actually (insert surprised gasp here) drove in a runner in scoring position. When he concentrates and is composed, he looks a lot like the real deal. So much potential.
Goat of the Game:
I cannot avoid throwing
Singles also continued his slump, and I do want to mention the Guy That Hit The Huge Home Run here too, but the Huge Home Run should count for something, and perhaps that means that he avoids the Goat Mention.
Keep an eye out for...
Alex Wood (5-6, 3.43 ERA) versus Collin McHugh (4-5, 2.76 ERA).
Wednesday 25 June, Minute Maid Park, 8:10 Eastern, 7:10 Central. Insert high-pitched interested grunt here!