The Astros continue to play well. With a 5-2 win over the Seattle Mariners today, they move to 6-2 in September - otherwise known as the Lawless era - and a robust 65-81 on the year. Trailing Houston in the AL is the ex-World Champs, Boston (63-83), Minnesota (62-82) and Texas (54-91). The Astros trial the White Sox by a half-game, but with the next team sitting at 70 wins (Tampa), that is as high as they should climb in the Junior Circuit. In the NL, the Astros have more wins than the Cubbies, Arizona and Colorado. At this stage, they sit seventh in the combined standings, so will get the second and eighth pick in June 2015.
This late-season surge is nice to see, especially given that Springer has been out since July 20, Singleton is hitting less than .200, and a relative offensive black hole has existed for most of the season at catcher and third. Robbie Grossman's recent OBP surge is the only reason that I don't mention LF in that sentence too.
And today, we got to see some clutch hitting from the bottom of the order, a strong debut from one of the many Astros starting pitching prospects, and more solid 'pen work. To the recap!! (and a sarcastic essay on Jeff Luhnow, egomaniac, thrown in for free).
On the Mound:
The book on Nick Tropeano, as far as I can recall, is that he has a solid fastball and a great change-up, with his secondary breaking offering currently a work in progress, but with the potential to become a solid pitch. He is a fifth round selection in 2011 out of Stony Brook University, NY, and has a great pitchers frame at a slender 6'4".
Those loyal readers of this blog would understand that being a 2011 draftee means that he is Not A Luhnow Guy, which means that the organisation hates him, and desperately wants him to (i) fail, (ii) get injured or (iii) fail and get injured. Bo Porter got fired for Not Following The Organisational Philosophy by removing Dallas Keuchel - also Not A Luhnow Guy - from all his starts before he hit 300 pitches or gave up 15 earned runs - whichever came first.
You see, Bo didn't get that the only guys allowed to have success are Luhnow Guys - or those drafted or traded for from 2012 onward. This is because Jeff Luhnow is a giant egomaniac who only wants success from the Astros if it is a direct result of his pulling the strings. But Tom Lawless, probably acting as a puppet for Jeff Luhnow, was allowed to take pity on NiTro given that it was his ML Debut and all. And his parents were in the stands, watching.
But, some time in April or May next year, the shellings and 300 pitch games are likely to start. And I am anticipating that he will be demoted with some stupid problem like a "dead arm" or something (in all my years of doctor-hood, I have never, ever, diagnosed a dead arm. Except on a dead person. They normally have two of them, which is a pretty good sign that dead legs are also soon to be diagnosed.) NiTro's demotion would make way for a Luhnow Guy, like Mark Appel, who will be having bullpens every second day at Minute Maid Park, watching NiTro and Keuchel like a salivating vulture, waiting for their arms to drop off. Or die. Or something. But Collin McHugh, who is certainly a Luhnow Guy, will be sitting on a deckchair on Tal's Hill, being fanned by bikini-clad girls waving palm fronds, all because of the date of his acquisition. Nice knowing you, NiTro.
Well, that rant certainly took an odd turn, didn't it... apologies. Back to the recap.
NiTro started his ML Career with a lovely strikeout of Austin Jackson, his first hitter, on a 1-2 change. He then promptly gave his first ML hit to Michael Saunders, on a bouncer up the middle that Villar certainly should have fielded - somehow, it was scored a hit. But the inning ended uneventfully, and NiTro ended the bottom of the second with a 3-0 lead.
The night of firsts continued in the second, when the Trop gave up his first ML run. Kyle Seager walked to lead off, LoMo flew out to left, then Brad Miller reached on what was scored an infield single to first. Villar's throw was in time, but it sailed, was well over Singleton's head, and wound up in the camera-well. When Zunino doubled as the next batter (the change up was a little elevated), both runners scored, and the game tightened up considerably at 3-2. Tropeano bounced back to get James Jones to line out, and strike Austin Jackson out for the second time (on a 1-2 change).
In the third, Robinson Cano reached on a one-out infield single to Singleton, who nearly made an awesome play, but his throw pulled NiTro off the bag. However, Morales grounded into a well executed 4-6-1 double play which was completed in plenty of time to get the runner at first.
The next baserunner that NiTro was to allow was a Michael Saunders walk leading off the sixth. In the interim, he struck out Brad Miller on a back foot breaking ball, got James Jones swinging on a running fastball away, and got Austin Jackson swinging (for the third time) on a breaking ball.
After NiTro walked Saunders, his night was done, leaving to a final line of 5+ IP, 4H, 2R/ER, 2BB, 5K, 80 pitches, 50-50 ground ball to fly ball ratio. Solid first up outing, with not a heckuva lot of help from the defence.
Astros fans would have been justifiably anxious seeing Darin Downs trot in from the 'pen, but he was surprisingly awesome. Downs struck Cano out swinging down-and-away, then Morales grounded into a 5-4-3 twin killing, with Altuve absorbing the hit at second and still getting his throw off. Morales really is as slow as molasses down the first base line - Altuve's throw had a fair bit of zip removed in the collision, but he still got Morales by plenty.
Downs then walked Seager to lead off the seventh, but a Logan Morrison 6-unassisted-3 double-play was recorded. Downs then struck out Brad Miller to end the threat, and record two scoreless innings with 2K's and 1BB. Jose Veras got the eighth, and he struck out two in a perfect inning - Zunino on a perfectly placed fastball down and away, and Jackson on a breaking ball off the plate away.
Tony Sipp got the save, with Chad Qualls still nursing a sore-something. He has old-man aches and pains, and in a team of young twenty-somethings he must feel about 80 most of the time. Anyhow, Sipp was sharp early, striking out Saunders on a perfectly placed slider, yielding a single to Cano on a ball fielded deep in the hole, then getting Morales to fly out to deep left, and Seager to fly out to one-step-short-of-the-wall in right.
At the Plate:
Hisashi Iwakuma has faced the Astros three times per year, and hasn't fared especially well, given that he entered this game with a 2.97 ERA on the season. On May 3 he went 6.2, giving up 4ER and getting the win. On May 25, he went 7, giving up 4 runs, and wearing the loss. On Jul 1, he was solid, going 6, giving up 1ER in a 13-2 rout (that was the game where Cosart had a rough outing, then Downs got lit up for 4ER on 0.1IP.
Iwakuma, however, started the game with a ridiculous strikeout looking of Robbie Grossman (2-5) on a perfectly placed splitter down and away. And Fowler (1-4, 2B) struck out swinging later in the inning on a high splitter. He only needed 12 pitches to retire the side in the first.
However, night was about to get worse for Iwakuma. He walked Singleton (0-3, BB, 3K) with one out on five pitches. With two outs, Alex Presley (2-4) singled just to the 2B side of second base, sending Singleton to second. Max Stassi (1-4, 2RBI), on his first PA of the year, got a 79mph hanging slider that he drilled into the LF gap. Singleton, going on contact, scored easily, and Presley wasn't too far behind, but his slide into home stalled dramatically because his belt was undone, and he nearly tummy-crawled to the plate. However, he made it safely, and Stassi went to second on the throw home. Astros took a two-nil lead, but weren't done as Villar (1-4, 2B) drilled a deep double to left, going the other way, which James Jones got a glove (or more accurately, a wrist) on just short to the wall, but he spilled it. Stassi scored, Villar went into second, and the Astros led, 3-0.
In the third, Fowler hit a one-out double to left, but Carter (1-4, SB) and Singleton both went swinging to end the threat. In the fourth, the 6, 7 and 8 hitters went in order. In the fifth, Robbie Grossman singled up the middle, then Jose Altuve (2-5, 2B, mini-slump busted!!) drove him in with a double hooked down the LF line. The Astros increased their lead to 4-2, and after Dexter Fowler walked to put two on with 1 out, Lloyd McClendon had seen enough. Iwakuma gone after 4.1IP, giving up 4ER. The Astros went in order on a pair of strikeouts to end that frame, and not make Iwakuma's line any worse.
The next Astros baserunner was Jose Altuve, on a 2-out single through the 5.5-hole in the seventh, which was also his 200-th hit on the season. He only got to celebrate at first, however, when Fowler was unable to advance him when he stuck out swinging.
In the eighth, Chris Carter led off by singling just past short. Jon Singleton struck out swinging and Matt Dominguez (0-4) lined out to CF for the first two outs of the frame. Chris Carter then stole second (his third in the last 5 games!), which proved vital in the context of the inning when Presley sliced a single through the 5.5-hole, scoring the unlikely speed-threat Chris Carter for the fifth run of the game. Presley went to third with heads-up base running when the throw skipped past Zunino to the backstop.
The Astros then went in order in the ninth despite a Grossman single. But they managed enough to take this one with a solid margin.
Jonathan Villar's clutch 2-out, RBI double in the second, immediately after Max Stassi's clutch 2-out, 2RBI single, was the Turning Point. The top of the Astros order didn't really do that much, but getting early production from the bottom of the order, especially against a tough pitcher like Iwakuma, was a fine head-start. After those three runs scored, solid pitching was all that was needed to get the Astros home, and pitch solidly they did.
Man of the Match:
I want to mention the pitching corps here. NiTro showed plenty in his ML debut, Darin Downs had a great outing, Jose Veras looked sharp as well, and Phat Tony closed the door without problem (despite a couple of warning-track shots).
Goat of the Game:
Austin Jackson: 0-4, 4K.
A tired Astros side is just getting into a hotel in LA about.... now! Thankfully, they get tomorrow off before going up against the Angels on Friday.
Brett Oberholtzer (5-10, 4.38) versus C.J. Wilson (11-9, 4.64)
10 Eastern, 9 Central.