Roberto Hernandez (0-1, 3.38) versus J.A. Happ (0-1, 2.70)
The Astros looked for their fifth win in a row, and to improve their already robust record at Safeco Field on Wednesday night in Seattle. The Astros have a 16-8 record at Safeco, including winning 12 of the last 16 games against the Mariners. Nominal fourth starter Roberto Hernandez took the bump, against ex-Stro J.A. Happ, who has steadily gained velocity since leaving the Astros organisation, and has had a better career than some projected after watching him in Houston.
Tonight wasn't to be for the Astros, but not for lack of opportunities. The Mariners were efficient with turning their hits into runs to start the game, but the Astros had a number of opportunities to draw level against the Seattle bullpen late in the game. But there are a number of good points to take from the game, as the Astros head to Oakland for two series in California against the A's and the Padres. Astros lose, 3-2.
On the Mound:
Roberto Hernandez gave up a solitary run in each of the first, third and fourth innings, which eventually proved enough to lose the game for the 'Stros. In the first, Hernandez allowed a one-out single to Austin Jackson, who stole second and scored on Nelson Cruz' two out single into LF that dropped just short of Colby Rasmus. In the third, Mike Zunino hit a lead-off home run on a 3-2 count on a fastball that leaked back over the plate and was elevated. This ball was hammered, and cleared the LF wall by miles - Zunino, for all his contact difficulties, has some serious pop. In the fourth inning, Hernandez walked Logan Morrison two outs, and Morrison took third on a Dustin Ackley single, eventually scoring on a Brad Milleer single on an elevated fastball that again missed arm-side and up.
In the innings where the Mariners didn't score, Hernandez faced the minimum. He was assisted by a line-out to short, which turned into a double play in his last frame - the 7th. Much like Collin McHugh last night, Hernandez struggled a little early, but bounced back to pitch effectively late into the game.
Joe Thatcher relieved to start the eighth, and he struck out the first two batters he faced (both swinging) before allowing a single to the lefty, Robinson Canó. Will Harris relieved, and enticed Nelson Cruz to line out to CF, where Jake Marisnick made a nice running play on a ball cutting away from him. Harris got to rack up another scoreless appearance, running his total to some 22 scoreless appearances, spanning 23.2IP. He has allowed exactly one hit this season.
In all, the pitching staff allowed a combined 8 baserunners on 7 hits and a walk. They struck out 4. All hits were singles except Zunino's long homer. This one didn't exactly get away from the pitching staff, but the end result could have been much better with some better luck or sequencing.
At the Plate:
I predicted that lefties may sit against Happ tonight, but this was not the case. Valbuena, Rasmus and Castro all started, and the TV commentary indicated that this was most likely on the basis that Happ relied on an over-the-top curveball, rather than a slider that leaves lefties. The Astros were unhappy with the strike zone all night - and with some legitimate complaint - as hitting coach Dave Hudgens got tossed shortly after Luis Valbuena's strikeout that ended the fifth. The pitch to Valbuena was actually a strike, but earlier in the game, Colby Rasmus was called out looking on an ankle-high third strike, and a number of strikes were called off the plate away. The evidence is below, courtesy of brooksbaseball.net:
Looks like both teams had cause for complaints. Alan Ashby was especially keen to point out that a home plate ump shouldn't call high strikes and low strikes and strikes off the plate, because it is grossly unfair to the hitters. Regardless, neither team was happy, but the Mariners were voicing it less, probably because they were leading the entire game.
The Astros went in order in the first, and managed two singles (from Lowrie and Carter) in the second before Rasmus struck out on a full count called strike at his ankles. They went in order in the third, and Jed Lowrie doubled for the only baserunner with two outs in the fourth. The Astros were held scoreless until the fifth, when Colby Rasmus doubled with one out, and was driven in by Jose Altuve with two outs on a line drive that dropped just short of Nelson Cruz in RF. Rasmus was off at the crack of the bat, and he slid in just ahead of the throw in a nice bit of baserunning. Altuve took second on the throw, but Valbeuna struck out to end the frame in the abovementioned incident.
In the sixth, Lowrie singled with two outs for the only baserunner, and Carter hit a leadoff home run in the seventh - his first for the year. He took low pitch down the middle and lined it just to the right of CF for a no-doubter. Carter often takes a while to heat up, and he would have had a good offensive night if not for the three pitch strikeout in his next at-bat. Rasmus followed Carter with a single, but he was promptly erased on a double play grounder to second, which Canó and Miller turned very elegantly.
The eighth and ninth were both remarkable for lost scoring opportunities. Happ opened the eighth, and retired Valbuena on an attempted drag-bunt for a base hit. Yoervis Medina relieved, and he had trouble throwing strikes from the outset. George Springer walked on 4 straight, Evan Gattis (0-4) hit a hard line drive to a step short of the wall in right for a loud out, then Lowrie (3-3, BB, 2B) and Castro (0-3, BB) both walked, with Medina throwing 7 straight pitches out of the strike zone at one point. That brought Carter up with the bases loaded, and after having a solid night (2-4, HR is how he ended up) and he struck out on three pitches - fouling off a hittable fastball, going around on a slider away, then attempting to check his swing on another slider away for the strikeout. He looks meek at the plate sometimes.
And of you think that is frustrating, the Astros also had an opportunity in the ninth. Fernando Rodney struck Colby Rasmus (2-4, 2K) out swinging for the first strike, then Jake Marisnick (1-4, K) singled up the middle. That turned the lineup over, and Jose Altuve (2-5, RBI) obliged by punching a single through the 5.5 hole. Marisnick had already taken off for second, so he was able reach third to put runners on the corners with one out, down one, in the ninth.
The game lasted exactly two more pitches. Luis Valbuena (0-5) popped up on a changeup out of the strike zone on the first pitch, then George Springer (0-4, BB) grounded out to second on a hittable fastball for the final out. Marisnick was stranded at third, Altuve at first (as the go-ahead run) and it seemed that the final two Astros hitters were just a little too eager to get the runner in.
With runners on the corners in the ninth - which included the go-ahead run on base, Valbuena and Springer lasted a total of two pitches. Valbuena was guessing fastball, and was caught out ahead on a changeup. The ball would have come very close to landing on second base, but it found Brad Miller's glove on the way down. Springer just got on top of a fastball, and hit an easy grounder to second for the last out. Still, opportunity is the architect of success, and if this team learnt something about clutch hitting in this game, then the outcome could well be different next time.
Man of the Match:
Hard to fault Jed Lowrie here - the man is a professional hitter. 3-3, BB, double. His triple slash stands at a robust .283/.389/.522. His actions look a little choppy at shortstop, but he has been solid in the field, and he represents a very sharp offseason signing - at least at this point of the season.
Goat of the Game:
Luis Valbuena has been red hot recently. Not any more - or perhaps he is just taking a break before scorching again. O-fer, and a popping out in an important at-bat in the ninth. Sport is a funny game.
Day off, then in Oakland for a three-game set against the Oakland Athletics. Projected starters are Dallas Keuchel (2-0, 0.90) versus Scott Kazmir (2-0, 1.33) in a battle of the lefties.
Jonathan Villar has been optioned to Fresno, and Josh Fields rejoins the Astros, as they carry a 13-man staff for the foreseeable future. Which makes sense, given how the bullpen has been worked a bit.