Collin McHugh (3-0, 2.41) versus James Shields (2-0, 3.24)
The Astros headed into San Diego to play the second series of the year against a non-AL West opponent, and their first interleague series against a dramatically rebuilt Padres outfit. Even a casual baseball fan who occasionally checks MLBTR would have noticed that the Padres were highly active in trading for a lot of legitimate Major League talent this year, dramatically overhauling their outfield while managing to not trade most of their top prospects. They took on a fair chunk of change in the process, paying the salary for a number of costly players such as Matt Kemp and Justin Upton, while signing James Shields to a solid free-agent deal. Pundits wondered how their statuesque outfield would cope defensively but the general consensus is that the makeover was pretty darn good for a single offseason rushed job.
And the early results have encouraging for Padres fans. At the commencement of this game, the Padres sat at 10-9 - a little behind the NL West leading Dodgers. The Padres should be considered to represent more of a question-mark in 2015, rather than the more predictable facsimile of years past.
But tonight was all about the Astros, as they continue to impress with late-game offence and solid pitching. The Astros got ahead early, lost the lead with some unfortunate breaks, got ahead again, lost the lead again, then pulled away late to record a resounding 9-4 win. The 'stros scored six runs in the last three innings, banged out 10 hits (including six for extra bases), and walked five times, while striking out a hefty 13 times (including the pitchers striking out twice). They are starting to come around offensively, are getting on base, stealing bases, starting to hit for power, and riding strong pitching and outfield D to a division leading (and winning!) April record. All this despite being a tad unlucky (read: slow starts for their three power bats, low BABIP, and poor hitting with RISP).
On the Mound:
Collin McHugh took the bump tonight, and he looked very sharp early on. He allowed only an infield single in the first and infield single in the fourth as his two only baserunners in the first four frames. In retiring those 14 batters, he struck out five of them, and recorded five more outs on groundouts. A cool moment in the first inning when a hard-hit line drive struck his foot and ricocheted to Altuve who made a barehanded stab and throw to first in time. McHugh almost recorded an assist with the second out as well, as he tried to barehand a slow chopper back to the mound, and Valbeuna recorded the out after the ricochet. But the decision on the bang-bang play was overturned on a successful review, and the runner was allowed to take first.
So McHugh looked to be cruising when he entered the bottom of the fifth frame with a 3-0 lead. Derek Norris flew out to right to start the inning uneventfully, then Will Middlebrooks singled to RF. Alexi Amaritsa then grounded out to first for the second out, with Middlebrooks advancing to second base. James Shields was up, and on a 3-2 count, he hit a grounder up the middle to Lowrie's left - Lowrie dove and smothered the ball, but he had no chance to throw out Shields, and Middlebrooks advanced to third. But with two outs, McHugh still had the chance to record a scoreless frame.
Will Myers was up, and he mashed a 2-2 curveball into left field, directly to Rasmus' left. Rasmus made a valiant effort and nearly made a great diving play for the catch and out, but the ball got past him and went all the way to the wall. Middlebrooks and Shields both scored, and Myers ended up on second base. McHugh held the lead for one more batter, when Yangervis Solarte blooped a single into the Bermuda Triangle in behind third base - it was a cutter up in the zone, and Solarte may have broken his bat, but Myers scored easily and the game was tied.
McHugh pitched an uneventful sixth inning, and was relieved by Josh Fields for the seventh. Fields immediately allowed a single to CF, then struck out the pinch hitter, Will Venable, who wasn't able to get the bunt down earlier in the at bat. Will Myers then reached on an infield single to second base to put two runners on - a rotten piece of luck, really, as the ball bounced just over Fields' head then died on the grass behind the mound. That brought Yangervis Solate up, and Fields started him off with a solid curveball down and in for a ball. Then Fields threw three straight four-seam fastballs up and away in pretty much the same spot, and the last of these was hit deep into LF, just over Rasmus' head, to score Amarista but hold Myers at third. With two runners in scoring position and one out in the seventh inning of a tie game, Hinch opted to pull Fields and call on Neshek.
Matt Kemp was up, and he hit a soft cue shot to second base. A hard-charging Jose Altuve unleashed a perfect throw home - perhaps a little up the third-base line, but that is where you want to miss - to nab the runner. Justin Upton ended the frame with the go-ahead run on third with a grounder to second.
Thatcher and Qualls took the eighth, with no dramas. The Astros led by three when that inning started. Then Will Harris took the ninth, and he set the side down in order, including a strikeout of Will Myers. By my calculations, Harris' scoreless streak now sits at 25.2IP, and 24 games.
At the Plate:
Facing a tough starting pitcher, the Astros needed a solid offensive performance. Making it more difficult was the lack of a DH (no Gattis) and the presence of a pitcher. But they were solid, and seem to be excelling at getting the big hits when they need them, and tacking on late runs at the moment. It is a very watchable team at the moment, particularly offensively.
George Springer walked in the first, and stole second base. He was left stranded when Jed Lowrie struck out looking. Shields struck out the side (Rasmus, Carter and Marisnick) in the second, and a two-out Altuve single to left was the only action at the plate in the third. In the fourth, Lowrie took a 1-0 changeup in the middle of the plate, and he deposited it into Petco Porch (down the RF line) for a solo shot. Nice piece of hitting by Jed, who seemed to have a bit of loft on his swing to drive it high and deep, keeping it fair by around 15 feet. Aside from the home run, Shields struck out the side for the second inning of the game.
The Astros tacked more runs on in the fifth. Handsome Jake hit a lead off single under the glove of the first baseman Alonso, and he reached second while being caught stealing on an error by Amarista, the shortstop, who dropped the ball. With two outs, Jose Altuve then hit a deep fly that turned into a ground-rule double, scoring Marisnick. Luis Valbuena (1-5, RBI) then hit a hard liner to CF that dropped, and Altuve (2-5, 2B, RBI) scored. Springer then struck out swinging to end the frame.
Lowrie led off the sixth with a double to the LF-CF gap, but he was stranded by two strikeouts and a groundout. Castro (1-4, HR) led off the seventh (against the reliever, Maurer) with a long home run to the left side of CF. On a 3-1 count, Maurer missed over the plate on a 94 mph fastball that was meant to be outside, and Castro mashed it into the first row of the stands. It shaped as a big hit at the time, because it broke the tie, but the Astros were to concede a run in to bottom half of the frame to tie it up again.
The eighth and ninth innings were decisive, however. Against Joaquin Benoit, Springer fought back from a 1-2 count to work a walk, and Lowrie (2-3, BB, 2B, HR, RBI, 2R) followed with a walk of his own (although the 3-2 pitch was missed by the ump, and was actually a strike). Then George Springer stole his second base of the night (third base as well) and scored when Norris' throw sailed into LF. Rasmus - not to be upstaged by Springer's speed - then singled into RF, and Lowrie scored from second on a diving play at the plate. Rasmus then scored when Carter took an outside cutter and drove it deep into the LF-CF gap for the third run in the frame without an out being recorded. Carter (1-5, 2B) ended up on second, but aside from a Marisnick (1-3, BB) walk, no further noise was made at the plate for the rest of the frame.
All is not well, however, with Jed, who looked to have injured his right thumb on the play at the plate. He dove, and his left hand slid to the plate while his right hand broke his fall. He took no further part in the game, and looks to be headed to Houston for an MRI. I would think that he will hit the DL, mostly because the Astros would not want to take the chance to allow a thumb injury to linger, so they will give him time to recover.
In the ninth inning, Springer (0-2, 3BB) worked his third walk of the game, followed by his third stolen base of the game. Rasmus looked a little lost at the plate - the second strike looked like the swing of a man holding a nine-iron, and the ball bounced in front of the plate to boot. However, he proved me wrong when, five pitches later, he hit a long drive to RF over the head of Matt Kemp and into the first few rows of the stands. That scored Springer, as capped a solid night at the plate for Rasmus (2-5, HR, 3 RBI). Rasmus also nearly made a couple of highlight-reel plays that would have completed his night nicely.
Pat Neshek came on to bail out Josh Fields, who somehow thought it was a good idea to throw three identical fastballs in the same place. The last one was hit for a double - would have gotten out at MMP - and that tied up the game and put runners on second and third with one out.
On an 0-1 count, Matt Kemp swung at an elevated pitch, cueing it off the end of the bat. It rolled slowly in Altuve's direction, as the runner broke for home. Altuve moved quickly to his left, scooped and fired home in time to allow Castro to apply the tag. The throw could have been closer to home plate, but as it was, it led Castro right into the tag. As a result, the game remained tied, and Neshek was able to retire the next man on a groundout to Altuve to escape the frame.
Man of the Match:
Plenty of worthy performers for this one, but today the MoTM belongs to Jose Altuve. He made the abovementioned play, plus another couple of solid defensive plays while going 2-5 with a long double that would have been gone in some other ballparks. The little dude can play.
Goat of the Game:
No goats when a team manages six runs in the final three frames, and wins!
The Astros attempt to secure their fourth straight series win, and third series win on the road, after securing an above .500 April.
Roberto Hernandez (0-2, 3.57) versus Tyson Ross (1-1, 3.97)
10 Eastern, 9 Central.