Scott Feldman (3-4, 5.17) versus Chris Tillman (2-5, 6.10)
I commented yesterday that this game was destined to be a pitching duel. That was a sarcastic nod to the ERA of the starters, especially after Dallas Keuchel gave up two home runs and lost - both rare or unheard of events for 2015. But Tillman and Feldman both have a history of reasonable success, and both have experience pitching at Camden Yards, so a bounce-back for both starters was probably more likely than not. Tillman, in particular, has struggled this year, mostly due to an elevated WHIP (1.621) which, in turn, is contributed to by his worst walk rate since 2010 (4.8 BB/9).
So it's not surprise that the first run in the game was scored in the bottom of the sixth. It is also no surprise that the Astros eventually got to Chris Tillman, after having traffic on the bases early in the innings on a number of occasions. The Astros also did what they have done all year - hold slim leads with a solid bullpen, and beat up on the opposition bullpen. What the Astros didn't do is hit any home runs, or steal many bases (only one).
The final result was a 4-1 win in favour of the Astros. Read on for details of how this all shook down.
On the Mound:
Scott Feldman got the start (as you already knew if you had read down to this point), and he was solid through six innings and 92 pitches. He allowed 8 baserunners on 4 hits, 3 walks and one error. He struck out two - both strikeouts were timely and much needed - and he relied on three double plays (all in the first three frames) to maximise outs on ground balls. A solid bounce back effort, and the first time since the opening week that Feldman has allowed less than two runs (earned or otherwise) in a start. Feldman was also credited with the win, running his record to 4-4.
Ex-stro Jimmy Paredes singled with one out in the first (just over a shifted Altuve), but he was retired on a double-play of the 6-4-3 type. Steve Pearce walked with one out in the second, and he was retired on a double play of the 4-6-3 type. David Lough reached on a swinging bunt that Feldman threw away with one out in the third, then Caleb Joseph walked on five pitches, but Manny Machado grounded into a double play of the 6-4-3 type to end that frame.
In the fourth, Feldman narrowly escaped serious trouble. Jimmy Parades singled leading off, then went to second on a wild pitch right before Adam Jones walked. But Chris Davis struck out swinging on three pitches - the last of which was a back-foot breaking-ball - then Steve Pearce struck out swinging on a full count, ending an 8 pitch at-bat. Both runners advanced on a double-steal during the strikeout, but all that did was to allow them to watch Delmon Young line out to right from 90 feet closer to home plate on the next pitch.
Feldman allowed a two-out single to Caleb Joseph in the fifth, but otherwise faced the minimum. In the sixth, Feldman finally allowed a lead-off runner to reach, and it was a big one, when Jimmy Paredes doubled to right field. The ball bounced off the RF wall on the full, and ricocheted away from George Springer, who was hoping to play it straight off the wall. He may have held Paredes to a single if it hadn't taken a crazy bounce. Paredes advanced to third when Adam Jones grounded out to shortstop, then scored on Chris Davis' sac-fly to George Springer in RF, whose throw was up the first base line. At that point, the Orioles had just taken a 1-0 lead.
When Pat Neshek relieved to start the seventh, the Astros led 2-1. Delmon Young singled to open the frame, then Neshek set down the next three hitters on two line-outs and a strikeout. Chad Qualls took over to start the eighth, and he set down the side in order on eight pitches with a fly-out and two ground outs. Luke Gregerson got the assignment to start the ninth, and he retired the side in order on two strikeouts and a ground out. The 'pen combined to allow one hit in three frames, and a bunch of solid relievers (Harris, Fields and Sipp) never even got to warm up.
At the Plate:
Some media outlets analysing the game in less depth than the hard-working staff at Astros County labelled the Astros' performance as clutch. I beg to differ. I thought they were decidedly unclutch early in the game, but when they finally broke through, it was just as much about the law of averages as anything else. The Astros had the lead-off runner on in the first four innings, and on one occasion only got the runner to advance. When they finally broke though, all four runs scored with two outs, hence the idea that the Astros were clutch. But they had squandered a number of opportunities before that by not advancing baserunners and stringing hits together. Many of their outs early in the game were line drives right at the outfielders.
The first three hitters were Springer, Altuve and Tucker, which is the first time that this combination has been tried this season. Springer led off with a seeing-eye single up the middle on the third pitch of the ballgame, but Jose Altuve grounded into a double play on a 2-0 pitch to continue his recent flat patch. In the second, Evan Gattis walked leading off, but he watched as the rest of the side went on a strikeout, a foul out and a fielder's choice. Jason Castro walked leading off the third, but he didn't advance. Preston Tucker walked in the fourth, but he was eventually thrown out at home on a Luis Valbeuna double for the third out. Valbuena doubled to deep left, the ball nearly bounced over the wall for a ground rule double, LF David Lough played the bounce perfectly, and the ball arrived at the plate on a relay throw with Tucker still well short of the plate. Well executed by the O's, started by Lough who anticipated the rebound very well.
The Astros dropped any pretence of wasting baserunners in the fifth and sixth, with the side going in order in both frames. The seventh is when they finally broke through - just like the Orioles in the bottom of the sixth, a lead-off double from Evan Gattis the other way was the catalyst. Gattis dumped it in front of and to the left of Delmon Young in RF, and he steamed for second, making it on a slide. With one out, Luis Valbeuna grounded him over to first, but that left Carter up with two outs. On a 2-1 pitch, Carter got an elevated fastball over the plate that he could handle, and he hit a hard line drive that bisected the shortstop and third baseman, driving in Gattis. Jason Castro then doubled to deep right on a 2-2 count (a breaking ball that was supposed to be down-and-away, but missed over the plate, and Castro split the gap perfectly) to drive Carter in, scoring the second run in the frame, both on two-out hits.
The top of the eighth resulted in two more runs, and again a lead-off double was the key. George Springer doubled the other way on a line drive toward the line and cruised into second. Jose Altuve followed by dumping a single into LF, but Springer had to hold to ensure that it got past the shortstop, so he only advanced to third. Then, in a weird play, Preston Tucker grounded back to the mound and the pitcher Tommy Hunter made a great job of snaring the ball as it bounded high over the mound. Springer was caught between home and third, and he ended up being tagged out, but not before Jose Altuve got to third, and Preston Tucker raced into second. That positioned the Astros with one out and two runners in scoring position.
The Orioles pulled the infield in, and Gattis hit a slow roller right to shortstop. If Hardy had been at normal depth, Altuve would have scored easily, but Hardy was playing shallow and his throw to home was right on the money, leading Joseph to the third base side of home plate. Altuve slid into the tag, then onto Gattis' bat, with the knob of the bat rolling up the outside of his left shin, and over his knee. Marisnick (who had pinch run for Preston Tucker) went to third on the play, then Colby Rasmus walked on an eight-pitch at-bat to load the bases with two outs.
Luis Valbuena, facing the lefty Brian Matusz (who had already walked Rasmus) got a 1-1 breaking ball that broke nicely over the middle of the plate. Valbuena made no mistake, and he drove it deep over the head of Delmon Young, off the RF wall on the full. Young played the bounce perfectly (unlike the poor bounce that Springer got on Paredes' double), and Valbuena was held to a single. But both Marisnick and Gattis scored, which took the score to 4-1. Colby Rasmus had cruised into third on Valbuena's single, then Chris Carter walked before Jason Castro flew out to deep left - narrowly missing clearing the bases for good - for the last out.
A George Springer walk in the ninth was the final baserunner of the game for either team. Springer had another fine game in the leadoff spot, going 2-4 with a walk. He had his tenth double as well. Gattis, Carter and Castro all went 1-3 with a walk, with Gattis and Castro recording doubles, and Carter and Castro driving in a run each. Luis Valbuena went 2-4 with a double, and had the big hit of the game, driving in two. Preston Tucker and Colby Rasmus both walked, going 0-3, and Jose Altuve went 1-5, but hit a couple of solid line drives and was robbed by Steve Pearce at.... (checks box score)... second base! WTF?
Chris Carter took a fastball over the plate, and hit a clutch single between the shortstop and third baseman to score the Astros' first run of the game with two outs in the seventh. That allowed the Astros to draw level, and when Jason Castro split the RF-CF gap, Carter scored and the Astros pulled ahead for good.
Man of the Match:
George Springer was the only Astro on base thrice - a walk, a single and a double. A.J. Hinch may have found a way of rounding Springer into form. I would expect to see Springer and Altuve at the top of the order for the next few games at least.
Goat of the Game:
No goats, really. Those that didn't contribute with the bat played solid defence or pitched well. A goat would be unfair.
The rubber game of the series - Collin McHugh (5-2, 4.06) versus Ubaldo Jimenez (3-3, 2.82)
4:35 Eastern, 3:35 Central