Sunday, April 26, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G17: Astros in Oakland

Scott Feldman (1-2, 5.09) versus Kendall Graveman (1-1, 6.94)

As the season ticks over from "just a little under 10% gone" to "just a little over 10% gone", the Astros continue to surprise - at least in the eyes of most pundits, and how they saw the standings at this point of the season.  The Astros remain atop the AL West - the official Hardest Division in Baseball from 2014.  This year, the AL West looks kind of the opposite with, er, around 10% of the season gone: the Astros' 10-7 record would sit atop only the AL East (on percentage points only) of the other divisions.  

But, note must be made that all AL West teams have played a lot of other teams within their division.  At close-of-play tomorrow, the Astros would have played one series against a team from outside their divisions - the AL Central - and that is all.  Their 18 games would have been made up with two series' against Oakland, and one against the Angels, one against the Rangers and one against the Mariners.  The Angels - to make a point - have also played the vast majority of intradivision games as well, but have played only one team outside the division in a 3 game series - the badass Royals.  And the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers have also played only one team out of their division - also the Royals.  No wonder the Royals are so angry!

Time will tell whether the AL West will shake down to be a tough division again this year.  I would consider that - aside from perhaps the Rangers - there are no outstanding patsies in the division this year.  In terms of teams with a high ceiling, Seattle has been the trendy choice for the AL Pennant with a bunch of analysts.  But the Angels and the A's are both probably good-sized candidates for regression from last year, but one could easily see them dominating for long stretches again this year.  

Regardless of the calibre of the opposition, it remains pleasing to see the Astros sit at the top of the AL West, and win four of their first five in an early-season road trip down the western seaboard.

On the Mound:
Scott Feldman got the start, and he was provided the luxury of having a good-sized lead early on.  So he was able to pound the strike zone, and A.J. Hinch and Feldman together got to plan how they wanted to game to end.  The Astros had such a handy lead - 8 runs at the widest margin - that they had the opportunity to stretch Feldman out by allowing him to go over 100 pitches.  Stretching the starters out is probably more important than normal given that the starters have been on a 5-game rather than 5-day schedule recently.

Feldman retired the first five batters in order, and by then the Astros had a lead of 4 runs.  He walked Josh Reddick - who is as hot as anyone in baseball at the moment - with two outs in the second, but he bounced back to retire the next five in order.  The next baserunner was Stephen Vogt in the fifth, who singled with one out, but he was stranded at second after two consecutive groundouts - one advancing the runner, and one ending the inning.

Josh Reddick then singled to right to lead off the fifth, but consecutive strikeouts to new infielder Max Muncy and old outfielder Cody Ross meant that Reddick only made second with two outs.  The inning ended with a Eric Sogard groundout, and he represented the first out of the third run of setting down five in a row for the afternoon.

That run ended when Ike Davis singled in a solid at-bat with one out in the seventh.  Feldman, who looked to be starting to tire, then walked Reddick and allowed Max Muncy to single to CF for his first ML hit to load the bases.  A Cody Ross grounder marked the end of the shutout for Feldman, and an Eric Sogard triple to the RF-CF gap ended Feldman's night, scoring two more runners in the process.  Thatcher relieved, and he ended the inning by striking out RH pinch hitter, Mark Canha.

Feldman's final line was 6-and-two-thirds, 5 hits, 2 walks, 3 runs/earned runs, six strikeouts.  He threw a hefty 108 pitches.  He was very effective early on, and being staked to a lead probably assisted greatly.  He seemed to have good stuff today, missing down more than anywhere else, and getting the occasional swing and miss when he needed it.

Josh Field took the eighth for his first appearance of the year, and he retired the first two batters before walking Country Breakfast on four pitches.  Ike Davis struck out to end the frame.  It is seriously cool to watch an Astros reliever throwing in the upper 90's, and one can understand how the Astros have been so keen to get him up from the minors.  He certainly has some kind of arm.

Will Harris took the ninth, and he ended the game with runners on the corners after a leadoff single and a one-out walk.  He extended his scoreless streak by another inning.  He also looks like a solid addition to the club - and remember that he cost nothing to acquire.

At the Plate:
Lots to write about here, as the Astros broke out for 11 hits and 4 walks, while striking out only 4 times.  They had five extra-base hits, including 2 home runs in an impressive offensive performance.

Jose Altuve continued to torture the Rangers with a lead off single in the first.  He was, however, picked off first - his third pickoff of the year already - for a costly out early in the game.  The out was costly because Valbuena and Lowrie both followed with doubles, but the Astros only managed one run in the frame (despite three hits).

Altuve atoned handsomely in the second.  Carter led off with a 5-pitch walk - pitchers are starting to pitch around him a little - and Gonzalez followed with a one-out single to move Carter into scoring position.  With two outs, Altuve turned on an inside fastball, and he pounded it deep to LF for a home run.  Altuve seems to have been hitting the odd deep fly ball this year, and one flew well over the fence to give the Astros an early 4-run cushion.

The Astros scored again in the fifth, despite having no baserunners on with two outs.  George Springer doubled to right with two outs, and scored when Jed Lowrie singled him in.  Lowrie went to third on Rasmus' single, and scored on a wild pitch from the reliever, Chris Bassitt.  To underscore Bassitt's early loss of control, Chris Carter got plunked gently on the thigh with an errant curveball with two strikes on him, but Jason Castro flew out to CF - well hit but short of the track - to end the frame.  

The Astros added more runs in the seventh largely thanks to two errors from the Athletics corner outfielders.  Josh Reddick spilled Luis Valbuena's (1-5, 2B) fly ball to lead off, and Jed Lowrie worked a walk with one out.  Cody Ross spilled Colby Rasmus' (2-5) line drive for the second error of the inning to load the bases.  A Carter (1-3, BB) hard-hit single up the middle, and a Castro (0-4, BB) groundout scored a run each, and the Astros led 8-0 at this point.

Nothing remarkable for the rest of the game... except a George Springer (2-5, 2B, HR) line-drive home run leading off the ninth.  He hit it into the RF-CF gap, and it cleared the wall right next to the 388 sign in a hurry.  It was an elevated fastball away, and Springer crushed it.  Good sign for Astros fans.  Long may it continue.

Turning Point:
By the end of two innings, Jose Altuve (2-5, 3RBI) had managed to record two hits.  The second of the hits was the decisive blow of the game, as it provided the Astros a 4-run cushion.  An 1-0 85mph cutter on the inner half of the plate missed arm-side and up, and Altuve made no mistake.  The ball cleared the wall by 5 yards or so, landing on the stairs over the 367 sign.  Big blow for a little dude.  

Note is made that Altuve was upended on a fair slide into second by Max Muncy later in the game... he did not appear hurt, but may be rested tomorrow, perhaps.

Man of the Match:
Jed Lowrie is ridiculous.  He went 2-3, BB, 2B, 2RBI, all while playing a premium defensive position solidly.  He is slashing .296/.415/.519 on the year.  Boom.  Great signing.

Goat of the Game:
Everyone got on base at least once.  None of the relievers blew up.  Feldman took the opportunity to stretch out a little, but gave up a modest number of runs in the process.  This is a long way of saying that there is no Goat today.

Up Next:
Asher Wojciechowski (0-1, 6.00) versus Drew Pomeranz (1-2, 4.24) to end the series.  The Astros prepare the brooms for the second straight road series.  

Another lefty.  With a shorthanded bench, the Astros may have to run some left-handers out there.  With Marisnick possibly not playing tomorrow with ITB tenderness, Gattis may get a start in the outfield.  I want to see that!

4 Eastern, 3 Central.