Brett Oberholtzer (2-6, 4.40) versus Matt Shoemaker (5-2, 4.50)
The Astros head out on the road for a four-game set in Los Angeles and nothing changes. Altuve gets hits, Astros starting pitching is close-but-not-quite-good-enough, clutch hitting is non-existent, and critical mental lapses continue to cost the Astros in a frustrating 5-2 loss. So close, yet so far away.
On the Mound:
Brett Oberholtzer got the start, and for most part, was really quite solid. Especially given that the Angels have a lineup with considerable right sided pop, and Obie has been struggling with his breaking ball all year.
The game started badly for Obie. Firstly, the Astros blew a chance to score in the top of the first (more on that below). Secondly, Obie gave up a run in the first on a two-out single to centre with runners on first and second to Howie Kendrick. Obie threw a get-over elevated breaking ball on the first pitch of the at bat, and Kendrick hit a hard liner past Altuve into right-centre. He retired Aybar to end the inning.
In the second, Obie enticed Chris Iannetta into a ground-ball double-play to end the frame. In the third, Obie escaped the inning with another double-play and a TOOTBLAN from Mike Trout. Obie got the first out on a groundout, then Trout doubled to left on a 3-2 pitch down the line, past Dominguez. Pujols then hit a low liner to the left of Kiké Hernandez (getting the start in LF), who made a tumbling catch low to the ground after having to come in and get it. Hernandez had time to get to his feet, dust off his uniform, straighten his belt and gently throw the ball to Altuve for the out at second. Goodness knows where Trout was going.
The bottom of the fourth was Obie's "Waterloo" tonight. He opened the frame by getting Hamilton to fly out. Then a single, single, double (advancing to third on the throw) and sac-fly sequence resulted in four runs scoring, which was plenty for the Angels tonight. Freese's double was the big blow - on a 2-1 count with runners at first and second, he took a change up low and away (out of the strike zone) and lined it to the left of Presley, who watched the ball drop on the warning track just out of reach. The hit sliced significantly away from Presley - no slice, no runs. It initially looked like it had popped off the end of the bat, but no such luck and both runners scored. Marwin fielded the cutoff, and he elected to try and throw Cron (the trail runner) out at the plate - if he had gone to third, Freese would have been dead-to-rights, and no more runs would have scored. However, with Freese on third, Iannetta - the next batter - hit a deep fly to right on a 3-2 count, Springer had to jump at the wall to get it, and he did a good job to hold on as he tumbled to the ground.
And that was the scoring all done for the game. Obie retired the side in order in the fifth (striking out Josh Hamilton), allowed a walk in the sixth, and walked the first two in the seventh before retiring Mike Trout on a pop-fly to right (Springer made an excellent jump and got there in plenty of time). Obie then yielded to Jose Veras, who enticed Albert Pujols into an inning ending double-play. Veras then remained in the game and struck out two in a scoreless eighth.
Obie is an interesting one. He has little margin for error, and has to live on the edges of the strike zone. His breaking pitch is not sharp this year (compared to what I saw last year, anyhow), and he seems to be leaking his inside fastball back over the plate to right-handed hitters. He needs to adjust things just a little - if he manages it, significant improvement is possible. But, because of his stature and velocity, he can't get away with missing with fastballs and cement-mixer breaking pitches in the middle of the zone, and he will be doomed if he continues to do so. That said - I like his poise and demeanour in the mound.
At the Plate:
Distinct unclutchiness tonight, as the Astros manage 8 hits (three of 'em doubles) and four walks, but only managed to score in one inning. The first and second innings did significant damage to the Astros chances of winning the game.
In the first, Altuve singled on a grounder to third, and Castro singled on a deep drive to right. With runners on first and second, Springer grounded into a fielders choice. Singleton then struck out (his swing is looking too long to my untrained eye - he seems exposed/late on fastballs). Springer was then picked off first - it wasn't even close - but to be fair, the sun may have been in his eyes (it was shining between the upper and lower decks at Angel Stadium) but he was badly fooled by Shoemaker.
In the second - Dominguez flyout, Carter double, then consecutive K's of Presley and Kiké Hernandez. Grr!
The third was the run-scoring inning for the 'stros. Marwin Gonzalez coaxed a walk, then Jose Altuve doubled over the head of Mike Trout in left put runners and second and third, no outs. Castro then reached on a hard groundout that Pujols knocked down, but didn't manage to get an out on, scoring a run and putting runners on the corners. Springer grounded to third and beat out the double-play attempt, scoring another run. He then stole second (I think he had to do it twice, because the first time, he was called back to first as Singleton's bat hit Iannetta's glove on the follow-through) and Singleton walked. Dominguez then grounded into a double-play.
Kiké coaxed a walk for the only baserunner in the fourth, Altuve singled in the fifth (but Springer and Singleton struck out), Presley doubled with two outs in the sixth, and that allowed Shoemaker to hand the ball to his bullpen. The only two remaining baserunners were Springer (leadoff single in eighth) and Gonzalez (two-out walk in the ninth).
The lack of situational hitting is frustrating. The Astros were 1 for 8 with RISP, and a bunch of those were strikeouts. It is kind of like the offence is at a tipping point - when Fowler is in the lineup, he pushes the others down a slot in the order (which lengthens the middle part of the order), and he adds another good contact hitter - who can draw walks and see pitches - to the lineup. Without Fowler, the power-guys seem exposed a little - perhaps a little one-dimensional - and all seem vulnerable to hard-stuff away and breaking stuff down. They all look like a bunch of mistake hitters. Those are my intuitive feelings, anyhow - trust them at your peril - and I volunteer that I have no stats to back those thoughts up, but I will think about how to investigate this.
Freese, with an excellent piece of hitting, manages to scramble a double into the right-centre gap, scoring two, and advancing on Marwin's ill-advised throw to the plate. That got all the runs across that the Angels needed. He also scored an insurance run when the following batter hit a sac-fly.
Man of the Match:
If I were Cockroach, I would be getting sick of typing Jose Altuve's name in this space. But I am not Cockroach, so here I go: J-O-S-E-[spacebar]-A-L-T-U-V-E. His line: 3-5, double, run scored.
Starts Rant: In this stupid article, David Schoenfield (whom I normally like) selects Robbie Cano over Jose Altuve for the ASG, and doesn't even bother to advance an argument why. Never frikking mentions it. I would think that he needs to explain why he wouldn't take Altuve (.347/.386/.450, 135 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR, +4.8 Baserunning Runs) over Cano (.323/.382/.447, 129 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR, +1.3 Baserunning Runs) for the 2014 All Star Game. No doubt that Cano is a fantastic player and will deserve to go, but he isn't the best (and therefore) starting second baseman in the AL in 2014. It at least deserves a mention. Rant over!
Goat of the Game:
Hard to name a goat here - no one really played outstandingly badly and cost their team the game. More a case of slow nights all around. If I had to nominate one, I would go with Matty D - 0-4, GIDP. I am hoping that his lacklustre 2014 is the similar second-year slump to what Altuve had last year. If he sorts his contact issues out, and selects his pitches better, he certainly has the power to do damage, but at the moment, he looks like a mistake hitter who flounders against good pitching. And his D seems to have taken a step back this year too.
On the Morrow:
Friday night game in Anaheim tomorrow:
Dallas Keuchal (8-5, 2.78) versus C.J. Wilson (8-6, 3.90 ERA)
9:05 Eastern, 8:05 Central.