Tuesday, May 19, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G39: Astros versus Athletics

Drew Pomeranz (2-3, 4.42) versus Lance McCullers (0-0, 0.00)

Happy Lance McCullers Day, everyone.  Today was another celebration of the Astros' youth movement, as Lance McCullers made the jump from AA ball to the Major Leagues at the age of 21.  We got to see a few things today - a young man equip himself well on what may be the biggest day of his life, batman spikes, a nasty curveball, and the athleticism to field his position very well.  We got to see an Astros starter throw harder than 95!  We got to see an interesting and tight game of baseball.

The Astros lost, 2-1.  Unclutch!

Before we launch into the game recap, a couple of transactions.  Sam Deduno was shifted to the 15-day DL to make room for McCullers on the 25-man, and Jed Lowrie was shifted to the 60-day DL to make room for McCullers on the 40-man.  Deduno's DL stint was a surprise to most, and there were no whispers of an injury prior to the announcement of a lower back strain.  Deduno's DL stint was retroactive to Thursday, so he is able to be activated again in around 10 days time - around the 29th of May.

Secondly, the Astros traded left-handed 22 year old Lo-A starting pitcher Chris Lee for 655.8K of international signing money.  That represents the 46th and 76th slots in the international draft, obtained from the Orioles.  MLBTR notes that the Astros have "reportedly signed several seven-figure players", mentioning three specific names.  I guess not all teams want to be active in Latin America (and elsewhere), so selling their slots is a reasonable thing to do.

On the Mound:
As you may have heard, Lance McCullers Jr got the start.  Overall, he pitched well, keeping the A's by-and-large off the board in terms of run scoring.  He showed genuine major-league-starter stuff, but lacked a little control and polish.  He left after four-and-two-thirds with a runner on second, after 93 pitches.  He allowed one earned run, struck out five and walked three.

The Oakland first inning was remarkable for a Marcus Semien walk and a first career strikeout of Country Breakfast, swinging on a nasty curve away.  In the second, McCullers got into some strife and ran his pitch count up.  Max Muncy doubled to deep LF sandwiched around strikeouts to Stephen Vogt and Brett Lawrie.  McCullers then walked Sam Fuld, then Eric Sogard singled to RF on a 3-2 count.  That drove Muncy in.  The pitch was a low fastball that missed a little over the plate, and Sogard grounded it through the gap between Carter and Altuve.  McCullers then walked Coco Crisp on a full count before enticing Marcus Semien into a groundout for the third out.

McCullers recorded his first career clean inning when he retired the side in order in the third - on 9 pitches, too, with six of them to one batter.  He retired the side in the fourth, and the first two batters in the fifth before Marcus Semien doubled down the line in left.  A.J. Hinch summoned Joe Thatcher from the 'pen, and he had an epic 10-pitch battle with Josh Reddick that resulted in a strikeout to end the frame, and close the book on McCullers' night.

Thatcher stayed on to open the sixth.  The inning started badly when Jonathan Villar misplayed Billy Bulter's grounder for an error a hit (it was changed).  The ball was hit hard, and Villar was trying to play it on the bounce, but it ate him up.  Thatcher then compounded the error by walking Vogt and Muncy to load the bases with no outs.  Will Harris relieved, and he worked to a 2-2 count on Brett Lawrie, before getting him to chase a curveball away that was probably a little elevated.  Laurie - who has a noted weakness with breaking-balls away - may have been looking for it, and he reached down and flicked it into RF to advance the runners by a base each.  The Astros defence then rallied, and recorded the next out at home on a nifty groundout to the pitcher, then recorded a double-play where Chris Carter fielded a ground ball while moving toward first base, then stepped on first, then threw the ball to home plate in time for Castro to tag the runner.

So Harris worked out of the jam, but not before one of the inherited runners scored, which gave the Athletics the lead, which ended up being decisive in the final wash-up.  Fields came on for the seventh, and he struck out two while facing the minimum.  Jake Buchanan came on for the eighth and ninth, and he mopped up effectively, striking out one and recording five groundouts while also facing the minimum.

At the Plate: 
The Astros opened the game well, with Jose Altuve getting HBP on the second pitch of the first inning.  He stole second, then Jonathan Villar sac-bunted to the third baseman, advancing Altuve.  After a George Springer walk, Evan Gattis hit a fly-ball to mid-RF, and Altuve was quick enough to score, with the throw slightly off-line.

That was the only run that the Astros scored, and it wasn't for lack of opportunity.  In the third, Handsome Jake beat out an infield hit to short, but was erased on Altuve's fielders' choice grounder.  Villar then reached on an error - Semien dropped the toss from the second baseman Sogard - the George Springer walked to load the bases with one out.  An Evan Gattis double-play grounder killed that rally.

In the fourth, Preston Tucker reached by beating the pitcher to the bag on a grounder to the right side.  Remember that this is the unathletic guy who cannot run!  Chris Carter walked to move him to second, and Marwin González sac bunted to move the runners up.  But Jason Castro popped up, and Jake Marisnick's line drive carried a little too far, and found the glove of Sam Fuld.

More opportunities in the fifth.  Jonathan Villar walked on four pitches with one out, and George Springer walked to move Villar into scoring position.  Pomeranz must have been injured, as he was removed from the game.  Edwin Mujica relieved, and Gattis grounded it into the 5.5 hole, with Semien making the play on a force at third.  Preston Tucker struck out to end the frame and the threat.

The sixth through to the ninth innings all involved the minimum number of batters for the Astros.  Chris Carter was the Astros' last baserunner - walking to start the sixth.  He was erased on a Marwin González double play ball.  George Springer - leading off the eighth - hit a long fly ball to the left side of Tal's Hill, and Sam Fuld made a stunning play, running up the hill and catching the ball at waist height out to the side.  The ball would have landed in play - right beside him.  Apparently, that drive would have been a home run in 26 ML stadiums, or if the ball was hit a few yards to the left, it would have bounced off the wall over the yellow line.  That was the last time an Astros bat made some noise.

The Astros, as a team, walked six times and had two hits.  One batter reached on an error and one was hit by a pitch, so that makes a total of ten baserunners.  Nine of those reached in the first five innings, so they must have worked hard to allow only one of those baserunners to score.  George Springer went 0-1, but he walked three times, and Chris Carter went 0-2, but walked twice.  Jonathan Villar had the remaining walk (0-2).  Preston Tucker and Handsome Jake had a single each.

Turning Point:
Gattis' inning-ending double play in the third was decisive.  Pomeranz was struggling, having allowed a single, then had two fielder's choices (with the second one an error) followed by a walk to load the bases.  But the 4-hole has not been helpful to the Astros all year, and Gattis hit a tailor-made grounder to short, for a 6-unassisted-3 double play.

Plus, two sac-bunts tonight.  Anyone have any publishable thoughts on that?

Man of the Match:
Lance McCullers.  Hopefully next start, he is less nervous and that translates to better control, fewer walks, and lower pitch counts.

Goat of the Game:
Jason Castro.  Two days off, and you pay Hinch back by going 0-4, 3K.

Up Next:
Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.61) versus Roberto Hernandez (1-3, 4.12).  This may not end well.

8 Eastern, 7 Central.