Mark Buehrle (5-2, 5.54) versus Collin McHugh (4-1, 3.50)
The Astros went for - and achieved - the sweep over the Blue Jays with a solid 4-2 win. That takes their record to 25-13, which is now Officially the Best Record in the AL, and only percentage points behind the Cardinals for the Official Best Record in the Major Leagues. With an Angels loss, the Astros extend their lead in the AL West to 5.5 games, with the Mariners a further 2 games back. The .500 watch - the record if the Astros win half of their games from here - would result in the season ending at 87-75, which is a healthy margin above .500, and perhaps enough for a post-season slot. So things are again looking up for Astros fans. The introduction of a slightly weaker (read: problematic) pitching staff that the Blue Jays brought to town resulted in the offence again looking capable. The Astros now lead the major-leagues in home runs.
Bear in mind that the season is still less than one-quarter done. The Astros recorded their fourth season sweep - a feat that took the entire season last year. Now, on to the recap...
On the Mound:
Collin McHugh has been nails for the last year in the major leagues. Prior to that, he was regularly nailed - in that batters feasted off him, and there was no inkling of the success that was to come. McHugh - who was tagged with the loss for the first time in 13-odd starts during his last outing - didn't have outstanding stuff, but he held down a tough lineup to allow 6 hits and one walk in seven inning, with nine strikeouts. Two earned runs were all the Blue Jays could manage - an impressive effort given that McHugh seemed to be fighting his control at times.
McHugh conceded runs in the third and fourth frames. Prior to that he was in a little bit of trouble. Ezequiel Carrera led off with a solid single to RF, and he was bunted over to second by Josh Donaldson. Gosh, any time Donaldson lays down a sac bunt, thank your lucky stars - perhaps a sign of a scuffling Blue Jays offence. McHugh struck out Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnación on curveballs to end the frame. In the second, Russell Martin doubled to RF to open the frame (the fastball missed arm-side-and-up), but McHugh bounced back to strike out the side (two on curveballs), stranding Martin at second.
Toronto scored runs in the third and fourth, both as a result of lead off doubles. Steve Tolleson doubled on a grounder down the LF line, right into the corner. He was sacrificed to third, then McHugh hit Josh Donaldson with a breaking pitch to put runners on the corners with one out. Jose Bautista is in a slump, but not so bad that he was unable to drive Tolleson in from third on a sac-fly to left. Encarnación walked, then McHugh struck out Russell Martin on an elevated cutter to end the frame.
In the fourth, the lead off double (the third in three innings) was off the bat of Chris Colabello. Marisnick tried to track across for the catch, but the ball landed just out of reach, and Marisnick had to chase it to the wall. Colabello was grounded to third, then Ryan Goins managed to drive him in with a sac-fly line-drive to LF. Steve Tolleson struck out to end the frame - another curveball.
And that was it for the Jays. McHugh retired the side in order in the fifth, and allowed a one-out single in the sixth - although he advanced to third when Handsome Jake threw the ball into the Astros dugout trying to double Martin off first - another throw of Marisnicks that he pulled glove-side. In the seventh, McHugh worked around another Tolleson double with one out to post a scoreless frame.
Hinch was not going to let McHugh try and retire the heart of the Jays order a fourth time, so he brought in Pat Neshek to relieve. Neshek retired Bautista, Encarnación and Martin in order - the there righties make for a nice matchup for Neshek, although he has miserable numbers against Bautista. Neshek avoided deep counts, and went right after the batters, pounding the strike zone early in the count.
In the ninth, Luke Gregerson made it interesting again. The first out was recorded without incident on a grounder to shortstop, then Kevin Pillar reached out and flicked a line-drive off the end of the bat between shortstop and third for a single. Justin Smoak followed with another single over the shifted Valbeuna and into LF, and that brought the go-ahead run to the plate, and Brent Strom to the mound. But Gregerson rebounded to strike out Tolleson on three pitches - the last of which was a fabulous slider - and Ezequiel Carrera popped out to the third-base foul territory to end the game.
At the Plate:
The Astros only managed to score half of their runs on home runs today, but they started early. Luis Valbuena took a fastball that was meant to be away but missed over the plate, and he drove it into LF. The ball started out more toward the visitors bullpen, but it sliced to catch the CF end of the Crawford Boxes, into the first row. Valbuena has 10 home runs on the year, and it will be really interesting to see he hits on the season. He has been hot (at the beginning of the 10-game streak), then cold, then he just missed a couple of home runs (in Anaheim), and how he seems to be hot again. Going to be interesting.
The second inning was remarkable only for a Chris Carter single into LF (Goins got a tough hop deep in the hole), and the Astros went in order in the third. The Astros tied the game at 2-2 in the fourth. George Springer worked a lead-off walk on a 3-2 count, then Colby Rasmus walked with one out. After Chris Carter struck out swinging for the second out, Jonathan Villar doubled on a line-drive to LF. The ball landed at the base of the wall, and threatened to bounce up over Chris Colabello, who was covering it by facing the wall. However, Colabello jumped and corralled the ball, and only Springer was able to score, with Rasmus going to third, and Villar cruising into second. If Colabello hadn't made that nice play, Rasmus would also have scored.
The next six Astros went in order, but the next Astro to reach was a decisive moment in the game. Colby Rasmus - against left-handed ex-teammate Buehrle - jumped on a first-pitch change-up and drove it into the upper deck in RF. The pitch missed arm-side-and-up, and wound up as a middle of the plate, belt high, 78mph offering. Rasmus didn't miss, however, with the drive eventually being measured just short of 400ft. The Astros took a 3-2 lead.
They added another run in the seventh. Jonathan Villar added his second double of the game, leading off against Buehrle, who went all 8 innings for the Jays. Villar took an inside changeup, and drove a double down the LF line, into the corner. Handsome Hank grounded him to third on something that resembled a a cricket shot: a back-foot on-drive to be exact. But, joking aside, the ball was way in and off the plate, and Conger got something on it, and hit it slowly enough to shortstop to allow Villar to advance. Handsome Jake then hit an inside fastball deep to CF - a few yards short of the warning track - to drive Villar in. A Springer single up the middle was the only baserunner in the eighth.
Of the Astros hitters, Springer (1-3, BB) and Villar (2-3, 2x2B) were on base twice (as was Rasmus). Valbuena (1-4) and Rasmus (1-3, BB) both hit home runs despite not having the platoon advantage. Chris Carter (1-3) also recorded a single. The Astros only managed 6 hits, but four of them were for extra-bases, and all four extra-base hits resulted in runs in some way (3 RBI, 1 run scored later in the inning).
Colby Rasmus' discontent with Toronto was talked about a little bit over the last month of the 2014 season, and on into the offseason. Well, tonight he got sweet revenge, driving in the go-ahead run on a gift of a changeup from Mark Buehrle. Props must also go to A.J. Hinch, who decided to play Rasmus while sitting Preston Tucker, despite Tuckers' hot bat recently. Hinch also injected the other decisive player into the game - Jonathan Villar - who is...
Man of the Match:
... thanks to his two-doubles effort. Villar drove in one, and scored one as a result of those doubles - both of which were to LF, and hit on a line.
Goat of the Game:
Hard to hand out a Goat after a sweep. Let's give the boys a break tonight!
On the Morrow:
The Oakland A's (13-26) ride into down on Lance McCullers Day!!
It is not every day that a team gets to bring a 21 year-old pitching prospect up from AA who pumps gas in the mid-90's, and possesses a hammer curve which he can actually control. And tomorrow is one of those days. Happy Lance McCullers day, everyone. As I have recently written, this marks a vital point in the season when the Astros get to evaluate how McCullers can potentially contribute for the rest of the summer. He will probably get two starts, which may give Brett Oberholtzer time to repair the skin on his index finger. It is unlikely, however, that the Astros will progress to the end the season a rotation consisting of Keuchel-McHugh-Feldman-Hernández and either Oberholtzer or Peacock, so McCullers' audition may take on additional importance for later in the season.
Enjoy your day, Lance.
Drew Pomeranz (2-3, 4.42) versus Lance McCullers (0-0, 0.00)
8 Eastern, 7 Central. I have a meeting, so I will sneakily try and listen on the radio.