Drew Hutchison (3-0, 6.69) versus Roberto Hernandez (1-3, 3.88)
So the Astros welcome the Blue Jays to town, one night after a comeback win to salvage the series against the Giants. Last night, the bats seemed to wake up, and they got a couple of pitches to hit which resulted in three homers.
Something occurred to me after this game: if this offensive lean patch is over, then it is very likely that we have seen the best and the worst of the Astros this year. The winning streak was something, and the last few games have been something else, and it seems to be that the Astros are lucky to escape with a 3-6 record from the last nine games. But most important is that the Astros continue to lead the division by a handy margin, as the season slowly marches toward one-quarter of the games played.
Anyhow, the Blue Jays are all about power, having three of the best RH power bats in the game. Bautista and Encarnación are awesome, and Donaldson has done nothing but destroy the Astros for the last two seasons. Devon Travis has had an Altuve-like start to his career (they both jumped from AA to immediate success) but with more power. Kevin Pillar has a series of highlight reels dedicated entirely to his outfield defence. This series is going to be interesting, partly because the AL West and the word "weak" have started to appear in relation to one another recently. But as I wrote recently, a relatively incestuous playing schedule make divisions difficult to compare at this point. Today's games (the games involving Houston and Seattle) mark the eighth and ninth game between the AL West and AL East, so it is a little too early to comment on intra-division play.
Anyhow, the Astros were rewarded for working the opposition starter hard, and getting him out of the game. They found a weak link in middle relief, and took a lead which a solid bullpen held. Preston Tucker had himself a night, and VILLAR MADE A HEADS UP PLAY (or two!) for the second night in a row. Luke Gregerson was unavailable as he returned home for the night, but it didn't matter because Qualls got the save and the Astros won, 6-4.
On the Mound:
Roberto Hernández has been solid for the Astros this year. However, with the opposition line up stacked with fly-ball hitters, this was going to be a tough match up for him. Missing up was going to be a disaster, and that is what he did early. However, he bounced back to be solid through the middle, then struggled with ineffectiveness late, leaving a bit of a mess on the base paths. His eventually returned a line of 6-and-one-third, giving up 4 hits (2HR, 2x2B), 4 earned runs, 3 walks and no strikeouts.
The first was a mess. With two outs, and an 0-1 count, he left a sinker above the knees of Jose Bautista, and Bautista pounded it to LF for a solo shot off the Community Leaders sign. If he missed with that pitch, what happened next was even worse. A slider or something was belt-high and in, and Encarnación pounded it inside the LF foul pole for an even longer homer.
After facing the minimum in the second (thanks to a double-play), Hernández gave up another run in the third. He walked Ezequiel Carrera on five pitches, then Devon Travis doubled into the RF corner with a nice piece of hitting, staying inside the ball. Still no out, but a groundout, walk and double-play retired the side in order without further damage. Hernández retired the side in order in the fourth (on four pitches), fifth and sixth, mostly because he started keeping the ball down.
The seventh was when it all got unravelled for Hernández. A lead-off single was just wide of a diving Villar, followed by a double to deep right, off the wall on the full, about a foot or two below the line. Runners on second and third, no outs. Hernández made a great play on a come-backer to the mound - holding the runners and getting the force at first, then he walked the catcher Thole on four pitches to load the bases with no outs. Hinch had seen enough, and he called on Josh Fields for fireman duty, and Fields escaped the inning yielding only a sac-fly - Marisnick again pulled his throw to the plate up the first-base line.
The rest of the 'pen was nails. Neshek faced the minimum thanks to a double-play after a Donaldson lead-off single. Qualls had no difficulty retiring the side on 12 pitches, nine of them to Chris Colabello for the second out.
At the Plate:
The Astros entered the first inning already two down, and they announced their intention to keep it close early. Handsome Jake struck out leading off the frame, then Jose Altuve lined the first pitch he saw into CF. Altuve stole second, and scored on Valbuena's loooong double to Tal's Hill, over the head of a rapidly-retreating Pillar. Altuve was holding at second and he scored easily, so Valbuena stopped at second, unsure whether Altuve would be clear of third. Springer walked, but Rasmus and Castro struck out.
Preston Tucker had a base hit with one out in the second, but he was erased on a double-play. The side went in order in the third, with Marisnick and Valbuena both striking out. Most of the early strikeouts were on fastballs - the Astros hitters seemed a little befuddled, perhaps looking for something else.
The fifth was remarkable for Preston Tucker's double down the RF line. He made solid contact on a low pitch down and in, and the ball was placed just wide of first base for a double. Villar grounded him over to third after a great exchange from 1B Encarnarción to P Hutchinson got the force at first. Marisnick struck out for the third time to stand Tucker at third.
The Astros got a run back in the sixth. Jose Altuve hit a line drive to the visitors bullpen in left for a lead-off double. Valbuena grounded him over to third on a pitch away, and Springer grounded him home. That took the score to 3-2. A Blue Jays run in the top of the seventh meant that the Astros entered the bottom-half with a 4-2 deficit.
The seventh was the decisive inning of the game. The Jay's only managed one run from a bases-loaded situation while the Astros managed to pile it on. Jason Castro led off against lefty Aaron Loup by taking an inside pitch to CF on a broken-bat liner. Chris Carter looked good working a walk to put runners on first and second with no outs. Preston Tucker hung in there on a first pitch fastball, slicing it down the LF line for a double to score Castro. Tucker's second double of the night, and two runners in scoring position for Villar, who hit a hard grounder that bounced over Edwin Encarnación's head down the RF line to score two. Villar cruised into second, and Marisnick advanced him to third on a fly out - the first out of the inning. Altuve was IBB to set up the double-play, but he stole second, and when the ball got away from the shortstop Goins and rolled behind him, Villar raced home for ANOTHER HEADS UP PLAY. Valbuena and Springer both struck out to end the frame, but the damage was done, with the Astros plating four in the inning.
The Astros also threatened in the eighth, with a one-out Castro walk, followed by a Carter walk, and a wild pitch advancing them both into scoring position. Tucker then grounded out for his first out of the night, Villar walked, and Marisnick struck out for the fourth time.
Altuve (2-3, BB, 2B) and Tucker (3-4, 2x2B) both reached based three times. Villar (1-3, BB, 2B), Springer and Castro (both 1-3, BB) and Carter (0-2, 2xBB) reached base twice and Valbuena hit a double (1-4). Altuve stole a base.
A Preston Tucker sliced double down the LF line against a tough lefty scored one run and put two runners in scoring position with no outs in the decisive seventh. Jonathan Villar followed a double down the RF line to score both runners, giving the Astros the lead for the first time in the game.
Men of the Match:
Preston Tucker hit two doubles and a single, and Jonathan Villar hit one double and walked once at the bottom of the order. Tucker will get more of a look as Grossman gets some at-bats in Fresno, and Villar has had two solid games after some average González starts at short. Correa is coming, but he ain't here yet, and if Villar has some more solid games, he can do his career a lot of good.
Goats of the Game:
Two MoTM's means two Goats. Handsome Jake, (0-5, 4K, another poor throw to the plate) and Colby Rasmus (0-4, 3K) had tough nights.
On the Morrow:
Another Big and Bright Friday Night. Orange Tops!! Fireworks!!
Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (1-4, 5.00), whom I remember the Astros beat up in Toronto last year versus Dallas Keuchel (4-0, 1.39), fresh off his worst start of the season. Expect a Steve Sparks pre-game sighting during batting practice.
8 Eastern, 7 Central.