Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.61) versus Roberto Hernández (1-3, 4.12).
The Astros are playing really well. This season, they have beat a couple of really tough pitchers (Corey Kluber, opening night; the San Diego starting three; a couple of the Mariners starters) but they have also been shown up by some good (Jered Weaver, Chris Hatcher) and not-so-good (Wandy Rodriguez, Ross Detwiler) arms as well.
I bring this up, because tonight, they went in with a good game-plan against a pitcher with great stuff. They worked the count, got pitches to hit, and had him out of the game after five innings. From there for most teams, it is simply a matter of finding a reliever who is struggling, and try to add on.
On the opposite side of the coin (i) Roberto Hernandez has been really, really good, going six or more innings in every start after his first of the season and (ii) the Astros pen has not had a soft underbelly this year at all. Last year, anyone other that Fields, Qualls and Sipp had an ERA in double-figures (it seemed), but this year, Harris, Fields, Sipp, Qualls and Gregerson have all been really good, and Chapman, Thatcher and Deduno have been really good at times.
And, finally, how things change. On this date last year, the Astros were 17-28. This year they have just gone to 26-14, for the best record in the AL, and a half-game behind St Louis for the best record in the majors. On this date last year, the Athletics were 28-16, enjoying an off-day. This year, they are 14-27, good for the worst record in the AL. The Astros now lead the Major Leagues in home runs, and have a 5.5 game lead over the Angels, with the Mariners a further 2.5 games back. Astros win, 6-4.
On the Mound:
Roberto Hernández was good, allowing solitary runs in the third and sixth innings only. He went six innings, allowed 9 baserunners (7 hits, 2 walks) and struck out three. He opened strongly, walking Coco Crisp in the first before striking out the side - ironically his last three strikeouts for the game.
He was assisted in the second frame by having two runners thrown out at the plate. An oddity in a major league game, that is for sure, but also perhaps a sign of how much the Astros defence has improved over the offseason. A Max Muncy walk on four pitches with one out started the trouble, then Brett Lowrie golfed a low sinker into the CF-RF gap, which rolled all the way to the wall. Rasmus's throw found Villar, the cut off man, and Villar's throw was a little on the first-base side of the plate, but Castro recovered, and tagged Muncy right before he slid in to home. Villar and Castro both made solid plays, and they needed to be to get Muncy, who had run hard all the way from first.
Lowrie cruised into second, and he tried to score when the next batter (Sam Fuld) grounded it to Chris Carter, deep at first base. Carter tried to lead Hernández to the bag, but Fuld beat it out. Lowrie didn't slow up around third, and he tried to score, but Hernández fired a strike to home plate, just in time for Castro to again turn and tag Lowrie. Lowrie was out by a frame, which was proven on replay because the A's challenged the call. That was the third out of the inning, so the A's were held scoreless, albeit briefly, because Hernández allowed a two-out single and stolen base to Marcus Semien in the third, then he hung a change-up to Josh Reddick, who doubled into RF to drive Semien home.
Hernández bounced back to allow a two-out single in the fourth, and a one out single and stolen base in the fifth. Opposing players do run on Hernández a bit, possibly because he often maintains the high leg kick from the stretch. In the sixth, Hernández elevated a sinker a to Max Muncy, and he drove it out, adjacent to the RF foul pole. He finished the inning without incident, and his night was done after 105 pitches.
Sipp got the assignment for the seventh, and he was typically excellent in only allowing a broken bat single to Billy Burns. The super-slow-mo camera broadcast some awesome pictures of the bat breaking, but the ball flew into shallow CF for the hit. Burns was subsequently caught stealing when he beat the throw to second, but his foot came off the bag after the awkward slide, and Altuve maintained contact for the out. Qualls then retired the side in the eighth - the score at that stage was 3-2.
Luke Gregerson came out for the ninth with a four run lead, as the Astros had just gone homer-happy in the bottom half of the eighth. Gregerson has had a tough time of things lately away from the ballpark, but he has also looked vulnerable recently on the mound. He allowed a lead-off walk to Stephen Vogt, then Max Muncy doubled off the scoreboard to left to put two runners in scoring position with no outs. Brett Lawrie then singled on an elevated fastball, right over the head of Villar to score one - still no outs and runners on the corners. Mark Canha the bounced into a 6-4-3 double play - a pretty one too - which scored the run but cleared the bases. That ran the score to 6-4, and meant that the tying run was no longer at the plate.
Gregerson then walked Sogard, and Hinch pulled him in favour of Pat Neshek. Neshek needed three pitches to strike out Billy Burns and record the save, preserving the win for the Astros. The 0-2 pitch was an elevated fastball, and Burns foul-tipped it into Castros glove for the final out.
At the Plate:
The Astros put Sonny Gray under pressure from the outset. They managed two baserunners in the first (a Valbuena single and a Springer walk), then scored two runs in the second before any outs were recorded. Colby Rasmus doubled to lead off the frame, then Chris Carter took a 3-2 fastball over the Crawford Boxes for a long home run. The pitch missed up and in - it was supposed to be a fastball down and away - and Carter does what he does when he is batting well. Jason Castro then singled, but the rest of the side went in order.
An infield single in the third preceded the side being retired in order in the fourth. In the fifth, the Astros got another run after they loaded the bases with no outs on an Altuve single, a Valbuena walk and a Springer walk. Springer struck out twice in that at-bat, but the umpire missed two pitches in the same spot - knee high, on the inside part of the plate. Anyhow, with Gattis at the plate, the ball squirted away from the catcher Vogt, but didn't go far behind him on the first-base side of the plate. The three baserunners tried to advance, and Altuve was a dead duck at the plate after Vogt pounced on the ball, and Gray was solid in covering the plate. Gattis saved the inning by singling into left field to score Luis Valbuena, but no further runs scored in that frame. Gray showed some serious intestinal fortitude to get himself out of that inning, and he made good pitches to both Tucker and Rasmus to record outs.
Ex-Stro Fernando Rodriguez relieved to start the sixth, and he faced the minimum in the sixth and seventh. In the seventh, Altuve led off with a single, and tried to steal second. He was initially ruled safe, but Bob Melvin - who did not have a challenge available - talked the umpires into choosing to review the play of their own accord. Altuve was ruled out - his fifth caught stealing of the year in 19 attempts.
In the eighth, F-Rod got one out, then walked Handsome Jake, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement for Preston Tucker in left. Ex-Stro Fernando Abad entered, and he tried to work Rasmus up with high fastballs. Rasmus just missed the first two, the connected for the third one on a deep drive to right. The pitch was meant to be away, but missed arm-side-and-up and caught the inner third of the plate. Abad bounced back to get Carter, but Jason Castro hung in there on a slider over the plate, pulling it down the RF line for his fifth homer of the year. That ran the score to 6-2, and for a while, it looked like the Astros would need every one of those six runs.
The Astros added another three home runs tonight, with two-run shots to Carter (1-4) and Rasmus (2-4, 2B) and a solo shot to Jason Castro (2-4). For those keeping count at home, five of the six runs scored on long-balls. Gattis and Altuve had two hit nights (2-4 and 2-5 respectively), and Springer (0-2, 2xBB) and Valbuena (1-3, BB) were also on base twice. Jonathan Villar went 1-4, and played very solid defence.
Colby Rasmus added on in the eighth, which ended up being the winning runs. Fernando Abad tried to bust him with fastballs up three times in a row, and Rasmus eventually caught up. Another long home run to deep RF - cleared the fence by plenty, and looked like an upper-deck shot.
Man of the Match:
Colby Rasmus had two hits - both for extra-bases - while helping out in CF to rest Marisnick and give Tucker a start. His line sits at an Astro-like .243/.310/.530, so he fits in just fine it seems.
Goat of the Game:
Luke Gregerson has had as many mound visits recently as appearances. Brett Strom is the last guy he should be seeing, but Strommy seems to be spending plenty of time in the middle when Gregerson is on the bump. Hopefully, just a rough patch for Luke, and of course, acknowledgement is made of his personal circumstances.
Jesse Hahn (1-3, 4.42) versus Dallas Keuchel (5-0, 1.87)
The Astros get to turn the rotation over again, after going 4-1 the last time through. Only the fifth starter's slot lost, although the loss was not hung on the fifth starter, which was Lance McCullers. The Astros could skip the fifth starters slot the next time through the order
2 Eastern, 1 Central.
The Astros fly to Detroit after tomorrow's game. The first game of that series is a day-game, which is a little unusual.