Saturday, April 11, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G4: Astros at Rangers

Collin McHugh (0-0, 0.00) against Derek Holland (0-0, 0.00)

After the Astros' well publicised 0.096 batting average in the opening series, most fans were probably on tenterhooks with this game coming up.  I think that no one will dispute that the Rangers' rotation does not have power arms of the same quality as the Cleveland rotation.  But how much of the Astros' offensive suckitude was the quality of the opposing arms, and how much was a miserable offense that will never, ever get better??  These questions need answering!

A bounceback in performance was always on the cards for the Astros.  As for the Rangers, they had their home opener after a mixed series in Oakland, where both teams scored about a gazillion runs while splitting a 4 game series.  So the Rangers, to some extent, represented an unknown quality of sorts.

One thing that was clear within an inning or so was the that Rangers have not managed to shake the injury monster.  By the seventh frame, they had lost their starting pitcher and two corner outfielders to various ailments.  Holland went down after 1 inning, Shin-Soo Choo after two frames, and Ryan Rua also left with an ankle sprain.  The news on Holland is not great - he apparently will do no baseball-related activites for 4-6 weeks to rest a sub-scapular strain, which are difficult injuries to recover from.

Astros win, 5-1.

On the Mound:
Anecdotally, Collin McHugh had ridiculous periods of dominance last year, interspersed with periods where he struggled with his command, and frequently missed the strike zone by a fair way.  These tow extremes often co-existed inside a single start - at least that is the way it seemed to a serious observer who hates making notes.  I recall that his blister issue from 2014 was associated with the loss of control, and once that was sorted, he was much better.

Which is what happened tonight.  McHugh was dominant for the first half of his start, then walked a few batters.  Overall, he pitched six solid frames, giving up a single run in the process.  At times, he looked fabulous - like Cy Young - but he went through patches where he seemed to scuffle with his command.  Given that he started well, and finished less well, I wonder whether he is developing another blister issue on a finger.  Hope not.  His final line: 6IP, 5H, 2BB, 4K, 1R.

In the first, McHugh struck out Leonis Martín on a high slider and Shin-Soo Choo on a cutter away.  McHugh's second inning involved two easy ground balls (both to a shifted Lowrie) and a strikeout.  In the third, Elvis Andrus singled to open the frame, then was caught stealing on a bang-bang play and pinpoint throw from Castro.  That proved to be important, as Rougned Odor promptly doubled into the LF corner on a nice piece of hitting late in the count.  But he was stranded because of the two subsequent groundouts.

In the fourth, McHugh looked like he started to struggle with his control.  A groundout and a strikeout started the frame, then Prince Fielder singled to left, and advanced on a wild pitch.  McHugh then walked Rua on a pitch inside, but the frame ended when Mitch Moreland beat one of McHugh's offerings into the ground just in front of home plate, and Castro made an easy throw to first to get the runner.

McHugh then recovered - in a way - for the first two batters of the frame before he walked Robinson Chirinos on four pitches - the last of which would have missed the plate by 2 feet.  A groundout ended the frame without incident.

McHugh's scoreless streak ended in the sixth inning.  Beltré doubled to LF with one out, but advanced only one base when Fielder singled over the head of a deep and shifted Altuve.  DeShields - in for Rua at this stage, then grounded a slow roller to short - Lowrie's throw beat Fielder to second, but pulled a wingspan-challenged Altuve off the bag and Fielder was safe.  But Fielder over-ran the bag, and was tagged by Altuve for an out - he needed to slide.  The frame ended on a hard smash to first by Mitch Moreland that Carter made a great play on.  His defence seems to have improved greatly over the offseason (aka "props to Trogdor").

Neshek relieved to start the seventh, and he retired the side in order on seven pitches, which included a strikeout.  Qualls was comparatively leisurely, taking 12 pitches to retire the side in order in the eighth and aided by a nice barehanded play on a slow grounder by Altuve.  Luke Gregerson took 15 pitches, and gave up a hit (a leadoff double in the RF corner) but struck out two.  On the second out, Trogdor fumbled a grounder, but thankfully Gregerson was covering first for the force.

The Astros bullpen has started the season pretty well - let it continue forever.

At the Plate:
The Astros weren't going to hang around and get no-hit for eight innings tonight.  On the first pitch of the game, Jose Altuve - on an 88mph fastball - grounded a clean single up the middle.  Two pitches later, George Springer grounded him over to second, bringing new three-hole hitter Jed Lowrie to the plate.  Altuve was promptly picked off on a throw to second baseman Odor.  The filthy look after the pickoff on Lowrie's face was kind of priceless, and Altuve was picked off by a wide margin.  However, Lowrie made amends by turning on a 1-2 breaking pitch down-and-in, driving it out to LF just over the 354' sign.  The home run should have made it 2-0 early in the game, but only one run was scored thanks to the pickoff.  Carter then flew out to CF to end the frame.

Anthony Bass then opened the frame in the second (he did well in long-relief, throwing 5 innings and saving the bullpen), and he worked in and out of trouble for the rest of his night.  Gattis grounded the first pitch he saw to Prince Fielder, whose glove never touched the ball, and he reached on an error.  Jonathan Villar (starting at third) then grounded into a fielders choice, then Jason Castro smashed one right at Prince at first, and Villar was hung out to dry on the 3-unassisted double-play.  It would have been extra-bases for Castro had it gotten past Prince, but no such luck.

Robbie Grossman singled to start the third, then Jake Marisnick sacrificed him to second (whats with all the bunting??).  Altuve advanced Grossman to third on a fly-out to right, but Springer struck out on a breaking ball down the middle to end the frame.  In the fourth, the side went in order - Lowrie hit a deep fly ball to right, and Gattis was gunned down after Odor ranged to the LF side of the infield to make a solid defensive play and throw.

Villar walked to start the fifth, then Castro (1-3, BB) hit a solid single to right to leave men on first and second.  Robbie Grossman tried to move the runners up, but he popped the bunt up to the third base side of the mound.  Anthony Bass made a fabulous diving play to catch the bunt, and Villar was hung out to dry for the second time in the game, forced at second.  I was watching the TV commentary, and they talked about how hard the situation would have been for Villar as a baserunner, but no one mentioned the awful bunt.

To this point, the Astros had managed plenty of baserunners, but lost three in either pickoffs or double-plays.  Not efficient.  But Castro was still at first, and on a 3-2 count he was off and running with Marisnick at the plate.  Marisnick took a hanging curveball, and laced it into the LF corner for a clean double.  Jason Castro's jump off first was vital, and he handily beat the throw to the plate as Andrus also double-bounced the relay throw - not quite a lawn-dart, but had it made it to the catcher on the full, the play at the plate may have been on.

The sixth inning was notable for Chris Carter's (1-4) first hit of the season - and it was the longest single possible.  He crushed a line-drive to straight away CF, and the ball was hit so hard that Martín had no chance to catch it.  However, Martín played the carom off the base of the wall perfectly, and Carter was unable to advance past first.  Didn't matter though, as Gattis grounded to third to end the frame.

In the seventh, Grossman (2-3, 2B) hammered a low fastball over the head of Martín in CF with two outs for a double.  Marisnick continued his great night, singling to Martín and driving in Grossman, taking second on the throw to the plate, and taking third on the throwing error from Chirinos.  He was stranded there when Altuve struck out -  a power fastball down the middle.

The eighth was remarkable for strikeouts of Springer (0-4, 2K) and Lowrie (1-4, HR), and Gattis (0-4, K) struck out to lead off the ninth.  Villar (0-3, BB) grounded out to short for the second out, then Feliz walked Castro and gave up a 2-run home run to Colby Rasmus on a 2-2 inside fastball - deposited into the third row of the RF stands.  Rasmus (1-1, HR, 2RBI) has looked pretty good at the plate this year, and he put a nice swing to drive it out.  Marisnick (3-3, 2B, SB, 2RBI), followed with an infield single, then stole second, but Jose Altuve (1-5) flew out to end the frame.

Turning Point:
This game was close for a while, and the Astros didn't help their cause by burning baserunners on bad plays (pickoffs and popped up bunts) and bad luck (line drives turned into double-plays).  Marisnick's great at-bat in the fifth (which drove in Castro) after Villar got doubled off second gave the Astros a slightly thicker cushion, and when McHugh exited after six with the lead the bullpen was able to make it hold up.

Man of the Match:
Handsome Jake Marisnick has a stellar defensive reputation, but isn't known for his bat (quite yet).  However, today he made zero fielding plays, but he contributed heavily with the bat, going 3-3 with a double and a stolen base, and driving in two.

Goat of the Game:
No one really earned the goat tonight, and we have been kinda mean to El Oso Blanco recently.  George Springer strikes me as a selfless kind of guy, so he offered to take to Goat to protect Gattis.  Springer had a rough 0-4, 2K night.

On the Morrow:
Roberto Hernandez makes his Astros debut in the fifth slot.  He is opposed by the Rangers' Opening Day starter and old-friend-from-his-Brewer days, Yovani Gallardo.  Goodness knows what lineup the Rangers will field - at the time of writing, no official moves have been made aside from an announcement that Derek Holland will definitely hit the DL.

8 Eastern, 7 Central.

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