Lance McCullers (0-0, 2.91) versus Kyle Lobstein (3-4, 4.29)
Sorry, readers, but we have been locked out of the Office of the County Clerk for the last few days. We had to wait for the Constable to get time to drive up, and show us which doormat the spare key was hidden under. The three games we missed were remarkable for another Dallas Keuchel win (and some timely hitting), Preston Tucker's first career Major-League home run (and a game-tying shot to boot) and a tight game which slipped away when three late unearned runs were hung on Chad Qualls. The Astros have gone 1-2 over the stretch where we were locked out of the office. Entering today's game, they sat at a healthy 27-16, leading the AL West by 4.5 games. Just over a quarter of the season has passed. This is as good as it has been for a decade or so.
And what a time to re-join the game recap-pery! This was an exciting game with Lance McCullers making his second start (and looking better than his first), a rare triple play, and middle-innings lead change in the Astros' favour. Then, with difficult batting conditions in the last three frames, both teams were shut down offensively, with the Astros eventually winning, 3-2. McCullers earned his first ML win, and probably the right to keep pitching another couple of times through the rotation. How did it happen?? Read on...
On the Mound:
Lance McCullers did pretty well against a powerful lineup. In the first, Cabrera singled with two outs - no shame there - but that hit was sandwiched around two strikeouts for a scoreless frame. In the second, Yoenis Cespedes led off and reached on an error, when third baseman Jonathan Villar bobbled a hard-hit grounder, then rushed his throw and pulled Carter off the bag. Cespedes was erased three pitches later on a double-play grounder, so McCullers faced the minimum in the second.
In the third, McCullers opened the inning with a 1-0 lead. That lead lasted three batters: Jose Iglesias reached on a tough swinging-bunt / cue shot down the first base line, McCullers fielded, but ended up on his butt, and he was unable to throw to first in time for the force. Anthony Gose then did everything but drive the ball out of the park - it hit off the wall at the 420 sign in straight-away CF for a double, and Iglesias scored easily. Gose later went to third on a wild pitch, which resulted in Miguel Cabrera being IBB'd, but Julio Daniel grounded out for the last out. After two strikeouts in the fourth, the scene was set for the fifth.
James McCann led off the fifth with a double on an elevated fastball away - the guy has killed the Astros this series. Iglesias then reached on an infield single to first after McCullers had a brain melt and forgot to cover the base on a ball grounded to the right. Carter fielded the ball behind first base in plenty of time, but McCullers had sauntered off the mound and plain forgotten to cover first. Anthony Gose then grounded a perfect twin-killing ball to the right side, but Altuve threw wide of González who was covering second base. That put runners on first and second with no outs, and one run in, with the Astros trailing 2-1.
What happened next has only happened 10 times in the Astros' history, and not for the last 11 years. Ian Kinsler chopped a hard-hit ball to Villar, who fielded it close to third. He stepped on third, fired to Altuve on second, then Altuve got a strong throw off to Carter to get Kinsler by a half-step. 5-unassisted-4-3 triple play, and McCullers was out of the frame after he looked destined to put up a squiggly number with the heart of the Tigers order up.
And that was it for the Tigers O. McCullers struck out two and allowed a single in the sixth, Will Harris struck out two in the seventh, Joe Thatcher was the grateful recipient of a solid Colby Rasmus defensive play in LF before yielding to Pat Neshek who retired the next two hitters without drama, and Luke Gregerson struck out two in a scoreless ninth. The 'pen was great again, allowing no baserunners in three frames, with Joe Thatcher nearly coughing up a home run ball to Rajai Davis as the only blip (defensive replacement Rasmus made a great play at the wall). Will Harris, again, looked outstanding. As did Luke Gregerson for the first time in a while. But the hitters from both teams seemed helpless against the shadows
At the Plate:
The Astros weren't great offensively this afternoon, but they were adequate. Kyle Lobstein in a soft-tossing lefty, who is league-average at best at this stage of his career. In the first inning, he gave up hits to the first two batters, but faced the minimum. No, it wasn't because of a triple play.
Jose Altuve led off the game with a single to shortstop, but he was clearly out, and the call was overturned on review. The umpire simply missed that one. Jonathan Villar then singled past the third baseman Castellanos, but he was erased on a Springer GIDP, thanks to a nifty play from Kinsler and Iglesias.
Fast forward to the third. Martin González - who has been a little quiet for the last month or so - led off with a double to left. He lined it right over the third baseman's head, right down the LF line. Handsome Jake grounded him over to third with a ball hit the other way, then Jose Altuve - by far the best contact hitter on the team - drove him in with a sac fly to medium depth in CF. González scored without a throw.
In the fourth, the Astros walked the bases loaded with two outs before Marwin grounded out to short to end the frame. In the fifth, Jonathan Villar singled with two outs - his second of the game - but he was caught stealing, going on the pitcher's first move. Lobstein threw over to first, and Villar was toast at second base. In the sixth, the Astros found themselves two down with no runners on before Preston Tucker singled over the shift into the RF-CF gap. Chris Carter singled into CF on the next pitch, then Jason Castro singled just to the left of second base (but against the shift) to drive Tucker in. Martin González then singled on an 0-2 count into the RF-CF gap, scoring Carter, who had gone to third on Castro's single. Handsome Jake was retired for the third out on a soft line drive that nearly snuck over Ian Kinsler's head at second base.
That was enough to give the Astros the lead, and just as well, because Al Alburquerque struck out the side in the seventh. The Astros went in order in the eighth and ninth as well - the hitters were struggling with the shadows at that point of the game.
Much comment was made about Hunter Wendelstedt's strike zone on the TV commentary. The stats, however, don't really support the claims of gross incompetence. McCullers didn't get a couple of high strikes, but he did get a couple of low strikes. The strike-zone diagrams (from brooksbaseball.net):
Offensively, on Chris Carter reached base three times: 2-3, BB. Reaching base twice was Jonathan Villar and Marwin González (both 2-4, with the latter lacing a double) as well as Preston Tucker and Jason Castro (both 1-3, BB). Gattis, Springer and Marisnick all went 0-4, and Altuve went 0-3 with a sac fly.
Guesses, anyone?? Awesome triple play turned by the Astros tonight. Villar, Altuve and Carter were the architects of this one. In 2004, the last time the Astros turned a triple-play, the participants were Morgan Ensberg, Jeff Kent and Mike Lamb. Could any trivia nuts have recalled that??
Man of the Match:
I want to nod in the direction of Chris Carter, Jonathan Villar and Marwin González, but this MoTM belongs entirely to Lance McCullers Jr. He showed a solid improvement from his last start, walking only one (intentionally) while striking out six in six frames. He got into some trouble (some of it self-inflicted) but he also got out of it, assisted by a little luck.
It will be interesting who pitches the next game in the fifth starter's spot. The Astros, potentially, could skip that slot altogether next time around, and if McCullers is optioned in the next few days, I imagine that is what will happen. Obie will probably be ready to go for the start after that, so McCullers may be working on things in Fresno. Even if that happens, however, I can't see the Astros getting by on a Keuchel-McHugh-Feldman-Hernández-Oberholtzer-Peacock rotation for the rest of the year - someone will get injured or catch a terminal case of the ineffectives.
Goat of the Game:
The Astros try to level a tough away series against a top AL side by sending Roberto Hernández (2-3, 3.99) to the bump against a struggling Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 5.60). In nine starts this year, Sanchez has faced the Twinkies three times, giving up 4 runs. Against everyone else, he has allowed 7, 5, 3, 1, 9 and 5 runs.
1 Eastern, Noon Central.