Rubber game this afternoon, spoiled by a ripper of a bullpen meltdown after an early pitching duel. Sound familiar?? Youbetcha it does!! Only this time, the Astros were the beneficiaries of the meltdown, as the second game in a row swung on late scoring in the form of ninth-inning runs. This was also the third (of three) games in this series where the final margin was one run. Astros win, 4-3.
The Astros take the series 2-1, and in doing so, avoid losing 100 games for the fourth straight year, climbing to 63 wins with 19 games remaining. So yes, loyal reader and Astro believer, there is still a change at a better than .500 record. It is, after all, only a mere 19 game winning streak away!
Note is made of the likely emotional state of the vanquished foe. After the euphoria of racking up three runs in the bottom on the ninth for a walk-off victory yesterday to create momentum, all that good feeling evaporated as the A's bullpen simply choked this one away. Not pretty for the Athletics, as they struggle with the prospect of dropping closer and closer to being marginal for one of the two wild-card slots. Oakland is two games up on Seattle, and Seattle currently holds a narrow, half-game lead over the star studded Detroit crew. Cleveland, and their ridiculous starting pitching, lurks a further three games back of Detroit. So Oakland has a 2.5 game lead on Detroit, and things are looking shaky unless they can ditch this funk they are in, as both Cleveland and Detroit have the talent to catch fire. Bullpen meltdowns are (and Astros fans know this too well) the most frustrating of all losses.
Oh, and man Jason Hammel swears a lot. The field mikes pick him up yelling four letter words after every hit or walk.
On the Mound:
Dallas Keuchel got the start today, and he and Jason Hammel (much like Scott Kazmir and Scott Feldman did yesterday) had themselves a pitching duel going early. Keuchel set the A's down without allowing a baserunner the first time through the order on 6 groundouts and 3 strikeouts, all of them swinging. Coco Crisp was the first baserunner leading off the fourth, when he reached on... you guessed it... a grounder!... to third. The next three hitters went in order to end the fourth.
Jonny Gomes them blooped a single over the head of short to lead off the fifth, and Jed Lowrie singled him to second against the shift, also with no outs. However, an elegant play from Keuchel and Altuve on a Freiman grounder back to the mound yielded a double play (1-4-3), and Soto flew out to end the threat.
Keuchel ran into trouble in the sixth. A Gonzalez (getting the start at third) error to his backhand on a grounder down the line allowed the leadoff hitter to reach. Coco Crisp then hit his second single to left (a line shot also off Gonzalez's glove), and Craig Gentry sacrificed to to allow the runners to move up. A Donaldson intentional walk loaded the bases and put the double-play in order, but a Norris groundout allowed the lead runner to score, with the only real play at first after a stunning Altuve dive and rolling throw to first (he would have gone to second, but he couldn't get a handle on the ball). Had the ball reached the outfield, two runs likely would have scored. Jonny Gomes then grounded out to a slick Gregorio Petit end that threat.
The Astros scored two runs in the top of the seventh, so Keuchel took a 2-1 lead into the bottom half of that inning. And the lead lasted 5 pitches, as Jed Lowrie singled on a rolling 0-2 breaking ball, and Nate Freiman mashed a home run on another rolling and elevated breaking ball just inside the LF foul pole for a two run shot. The hits didn't end there, however, with second baseman Andy Parrino and Coco Crisp hitting one out singles (Crisps' single was again off the glove of Gonzalez, and really should have been an error) but Keuchel enticed Gentry to fly out for the second out. That was enough for Tom Lawless, who called on Jose Veras to relieve, which ended a tiring Keuchel's night after 106 pitches. His final line: 6.2IP, 8H, 3R/ER, BB, 3K, 12-5 ground ball : fly ball ratio.
Jose Veras inherited runners on first and second, and he started by giving up a hit up the middle, which Petit managed to keep on the infield through a max-effort dive to hold the runner at third. That gets through, and another run scores. Veras then struck out a pinch-hitting Adam Dunn with the bases loaded on a filthy back-foot curveball on a 2-2 count to mercifully end the seventh.
I kind of got the feeling that, if this had been 2013, all of Keuchel's inherited runners would have scored after a warm body like Hector Ambriz walked two and allowed a pair of home-runs to put the Astros in a serious hole. However, the Astros have an actual bullpen now (yesterday notwithstanding) and inherited runners are no longer 100% guaranteed to score. Baseball is becoming watchable again for Astros fans.
Anyhow, Veras stayed on for the eighth, and he allowed a single to Lowrie (off a jumping Altuve's glove - another play that could have been made), who later took second on a wild pitch. However, Lowrie was stranded there as Nate Freiman and Geovany Soto struck out to end the frame.
And the ninth was a Tom Lawless creative-reliever special. Tony Sipp started the inning, struck out Callaspo and Crisp, then walked Gentry on a full count. Lawless called on Josh Fields to face Donaldson, and he rung him up on three straight pitches, the last of which was a filthy fastball spotted perfectly down-and-away. Boom... game over.
At the Plate:
The Houston offence was also slow to start, with Jason Hammel striking out two in the first before Castro (1-3, BB) got the first hit of the night with a clean single to RF over the head of the second baseman. He advanced no further, however, as shortshop Jed Lowrie recorded the next two outs on a grounder and a pop up. Marisnick (1-4, sac fly, as the leadoff hitter) doubled with two outs in the third, but an Altuve (1-4, BB) grounder stranded him there. Dexter Fowler (1-3, BB) singled to RF to open the fourth, but Carter (1-3, BB, 2B) struck out looking and Gonzalez (0-2, BB, again batting behind Castro) struck out swinging to end that frame. In the fifth, the Astros went in order on a Singleton (0-4) strikeout looking, a Petit (1-3, RBI) line out and a Presley (0-2) ground out. In the sixth, more of the same, as the Marisnick, Altuve and Fowler went in order.
In the seventh, the Astros finally broke through. Chris Carter doubled off the very, very top of the wall (less than a foot from going over the high wall in the RF power alley) to lead off the frame, and Jason Castro followed with a walk. Marwin Gonzalez moved both runners up with a sacrifice, then Jon Singleton grounded out to second, scoring Carter and moving Castro to third - the runners were going on contact. That brought up Gregorio Petit with two outs, and he fisted a clean single up the middle on a high breaking ball to score Castro and the go-ahead run. Jake Marisnick hit a hard grounder to third to end the frame that Donaldson did well to field. At that point, the Astros led 2-1, but as mentioned above, that lead evaporated after 5 pitches in the bottom half of the inning.
In the eighth, Lawless decided to play some small-ball after Altuve singled up the middle to open the frame against Luke Gregerson. Dexter Fowler sacrificed him to second, then Chris Carter was intentionally walked - that's right, the go ahead run put on first base! However, Castro ended the threat with a GIDP, and the eighth finished with a whimper.
Then things got trippy. Really trippy. Ryan Cook came on for the save, and he started by throwing five straight balls, walking Marwin Gonzalez in the process. Singleton fouled out for the first out, then Cook lost the strike zone for 6 more pitches, walking pinch-hitter Marc Krauss (who was promptly replaced with pinch-runner L.J. Hoes) which sent Marwin Gonzalez to second. Robbie Grossman then walked on a 3-2 count, loading the bases with no outs. Ex-Stro Fernando Abad relieved to try and get the A's out of the jam.
Jake Marisnick ambushed Abad on the first pitch, driving a long fly ball to a step short of the wall in right. That was deep enough to score the tying run (Gonzalez) from third, and allow Hoes to move up from second to third. Then, in another fascinating bit of strategy, the A's put Altuve on with an IBB, loading the bases and creating a third-out force at any base. However, this reduced the margin of error to zero, and when Fowler walked on a 3-1 pitch (and the strike was a gift from the HP ump), the Astros took an unlikely lead.
If you are keeping score at home, the Astros scored the game tying and game winning runs on no hits and five walks.
Gregorio Petit was first-pitch clutch in the seventh to score the go ahead (at the time) run with two outs. Jake Marisnick was first-pitch clutch in the ninth, and like Grossman yesterday, had a good go at driving it out out to right with the bases loaded. Although he fell short, his drive was deep enough to score Gonzalez (the tying run) and advance Hoes to third (who became the eventual winning run). Ambushing pitchers on first-pitch strikes was a welcome change in strategy in a tight game, and those two batters picked their spots perfectly.
Man of the Match:
Once again, a very consistent offensive performance across the batting order, with no one performer standing out. So this MoTM goes to the relievers - Veras (with 1.1IP, 2H, 3K), Sipp (0.2IP, BB, 2K) and Fields (0.1IP, K) - who held the A's close with bases loaded, then shut them down when the A's lost the lead. Fields' strikeout of Donaldson is a thing of beauty. Look it up.
Goat of the Game:
No Goat, everyone contributed. Even 0-4 Jon Singleton. With an RBI.
The Astros wing their way to Seattle in anticipation of the following matchup:
Bradley J Peacock (4-8, 5.01) versus Felix Hernandez (14-5, 2.18)
10 Eastern, 9 Central.