Saturday, May 16, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G36: Astros versus Blue Jays

R.A. Dickey (1-4, 5.00) versus Dallas "the Beard" Keuchel (4-0, 1.39)

Second game of a four game set, with the Astros engineering a solid comeback in the first game.  The Astros had the luxury of sending their reigning AL Pitcher of the Month to the mound, against R.A. Dickey who has been struggling with the long ball a bit this year.  He has given up 7 home runs in 45 frames, showing that the Black Art of Knuckleballing can go horribly wrong if you are slightly off.  He is probably looking forward to the warmer and more humid weather.  I also note that he has been a league-average pitcher since he came across in a trade to the Jays, with ERA+'s of 98 and 104 in the last two years.  Would the Blue Jays trade for Dickey again??  I think not.

The Astros lineup had Carter and Gattis at 1B and DH respectively.  Preston Tucker got the start in left, and Marwin González returned to man shortstop after a solid two-game stint from Jonathan Villar.  Castro was behind the dish - he has threatened with the bat all season, and has shown some signs of turning hard hit balls into actual production in the last week or so.  Astros win, 8-4.

On the Mound:
Keuchel had a mixed night on the bump, struggling in two innings, and leaving in the seventh with no outs and a bit of a mess on the base paths.  He was the victim of some strange balls put in play, as one grounder was really a perfectly executed sac bunt (despite the batter swinging hard at the ball) and two infield singles at critical times could easily have been routine ground balls on other days.  He allowed 8 hits (1 double) and walked three in 6+ innings.  He was tagged for 4 earned runs.  I thought that he struggled out of the stretch, and that could be something to do with his slide-step, or perhaps tipping his pitches.

Keuchel started strong, facing the minimum in the first two frames, retiring three on strikeouts and three on ground outs.  He struggled in the third, and was either nibbling with runners on, or his command worsened, or perhaps the hitters knew what was coming.  Anyhow, a lead-off single, followed by a full count walk, then a perfectly placed swinging-bunt left him with runners on second and third and one out.  A fly out for the second out raised hope that he would escape the frame unscathed, but Josh Donaldson smashed a ball into the dirt in front of home plate.  The ball rolled slowly to Valbuena who tried to bare-hand it: Donaldson had slipped getting out of the box, so I think the force at first was definitely on.  Anyhow, Valbuena failed to pick it up, and Chris Colabello scored from third for the Jays' first run of the game.  Jose Bautista followed with a walk on a full count - he seemed to be picking the up cutter by this time - but Edwin Encarnación grounded out to short for the final out of the frame, leaving the bases loaded.

A strikeout - single - double-play sequence told the story of the fourth, and Keuchel retired the side in order in the fifth.  However, in the sixth, he was back in the stretch again after Jose Bautista singled with one out and Edwin Encarnación walked.  Russell Martin grounded out on a swinging bunt down the third base line for the second out, but the runners advanced.  Then a 3-2 count on Danny Valencia caught way too much of the plate, and a double scored both runners.  Chris Colabello followed with a single on a 1-0 pitch that leaked over the plate - Springer did well to cut it off in the gap - and the Jays had driven in three in the frame to narrow the deficit to 7-4.  Kevin Pillar grounded to short to end the frame.

I was stunned that Keuchel came out to start the seventh.  He was sitting at 95 pitches, and had two high-stress innings with multiple pitches thrown from the stretch.  I was even more stunned when Hinch didn't come and get him after Tolleson singled to lead off the frame.  Then Devon Travis singled on an 0-2 count - off the end of the bat on a down-and-away change, and into shallow CF.  Hinch wandered out to the mound to get Keuchel, and summoned Will Harris from the 'pen, with runners on first and second, and no outs, with the game-tying run at the plate and the middle of the order up.

But more nothing happened, because Harris is awesome.  The Jays already had their last baserunner of the night.  Harris retired Donaldson on a 4-pitch swinging strikeout, got Jose Bautista to pop into an infield-fly on the first pitch of his at-bat.  Then he took 4 pitches to retire Encarnación swinging on a pitch well out of the zone to end the frame.  Harris rescued Keuchel with nine (9!) pitches, striking out two, and not even letting the runners advance.

And the rest of the pitching performance?  Qualls: 3 groundouts, 11 pitches.  Fields: 2 strikeouts, 13 pitches.  No hits or walks from the entire 'pen.  Fields and Harris are being used as the back-end guys, and they are both throwing well, with ERA's of 0.50 and 1.17 respectively.  The Astros have serious depth this year.

At the Plate:
The second inning was one of two big frames for the Astros, with some clutch two-out hitting.  Evan Gattis hit a line drive to left to lead off, then Jason Castro smashed a line drive that sliced back into the glove of an over-shifted Donaldson, playing where SS is normally positioned.  Preston Tucker then hit his third double in two nights to deep RF - a hard shot that went all the way to the wall - moving Gattis to third.  Chris Carter got down 0-2, but then didn't try and overplay things, and settled for a fly-ball to CF to score Gattis on the sac fly.  Two outs, Tucker on second, then the Astros reeled of three straight singles to score Tucker, then González (who advanced to second when he drove Tucker in and the throw went to the plate).  Valbuena popped out for the third out with Marisnick and Altuve on base.

George Springer led off the third with a looooong homer to CF, just to the right of Tal's Hill, measured at 437 feet.  Dickey was throwing in the high-70's, so the pitcher didn't contribute much to the velocity of that shot.  In the fourth, Chris Carter split the CF-RF gap perfectly for an effortless double to lead off, Marisnick then reached with one out on an infield single to shortstop that didn't advance Carter.  With two on, Jose Altuve scared some girls cutting hair near the Conoco Home Run pump on the concourse in the LF power alley - a towering drive to score three runs.  That made the game 7-1, a lead that shouldn't really have been threatened.  Altuve had just missed on a line-drive down the LF line the pitch before - the ball went just foul - and he didn't miss this time.  His fifth of the year, and remember that his season high is 7.  Could he get to 20?  Also, fun fact: Altuve is tied for the league lead in IBB - with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

Tucker doubled to left - another sliced shot down the LF line - with two outs in the fifth.  His second double of the night, fourth in two nights, and his triple-slash stands at .333/.455/.556 at the conclusion of the game.  In the sixth, and with rookie Ryan Tapera having never given up a major-league hit or run, Luis Valbeuna ended that streak with an upper deck shot into RF on a low 94 mph fastball on the first pitch of the at-bat and inning.  Valbuena leads the team with 9 home runs, but once the homers stop coming (if they do!), his .270 OBP is going to struggle to keep him productive and in the lineup.  Jed Lowrie may be playing third late in the summer, especially if Carlos Correa is called up and sticks in the Bigs.

Solid offensive night, but with the Astros scoring 5 runs on long balls.  No walks for any of the Astros, but that is to be expected with a knuckler starting.  Altuve, Tucker and Marisnick all went 2-4, with Altuve homering and Tucker having two doubles.  Only Castro didn't get a hit, but he reached on a hit-by-pitch.  Carter went 1-3, while Valbuena (HR), Springer (HR), Gattis and González all went 1-4.

Turning Point:
Will Harris came on to face the game-tying run at the plate in a game that really shouldn't have been that close.  If you have, or have recorded the game via some other mechanism, this appearance is really worth watching.  A strikeout-pop up-strikeout sequence on three of the best RH power hitters in the league was an impressive piece of pitching, and it stranded two of Keuchel's runners in the process.

Man of the Match:
Not often a reliever gets the MoTM.  Will Harris.  The man has been awesome.  A waiver-claim too.

Goat of the Game:
I don't often disagree with A.J. Hinch.  I am not really anyone who can or should comment on his abilities, but I think he has been awesome and tactically impressive for the Astros this year.  Plus, he caught R.A. Dickey when Dickey was a power-pitcher on Team USA - nearly 20 years ago.  Anyhow, I was kind of gobsmacked when Keuchel started the seventh, especially since he was at 95 pitches, and the Astros' 'pen has been so solid.  It didn't matter, but for causing me some heart palpitations, he receives the Goat.

Up Next:
Recently converted reliever Marco Estrada (1-2, 3.54) versus converted reliever in the distant past, Scott Feldman (2-4, 5.23).  After tomorrow... 1 day until McCullers Day!

7 Eastern, 6 Central.