Garrett Richards (10-7, 3.25) versus Lance McCullers (4-3, 2.60)
A.J. Hinch runs a very even and level-headed clubhouse. He has been keen to downplay the importance of this series, even despite the tens of salivating Astros fans longing to repay the Angels for two years of (mostly) thumpings. It helps that Albert Pujols, who has built a Hall of Fame career torturing the Astros and their fans, is signed with the Angels until the End of Time, of course. For the first time in a decade, the Astros look to have a team that has the potential to dominate the big-payroll glamour clubs, so when they are competitive for the first time in a while, the fans long to see these big intradivision match ups. This is a big series, even if it is only worth three games overall.
It was particularly good to see Lance McCullers bounce back from a rough start last time out, and use his pitches effectively. It was also good to see McCullers get behind early, but hold the Angels to the slimmest of advantages. The Astros were being no-hit after four, but they kept grinding, strung some hits together, and added on again late against the Anaheim bullpen. This was a solid win, where again they doubled up the Angels by a score of 6-3, taking the series, and gaining the opportunity for a sweep tomorrow. They are back on top of the AL West by a game, and at worst, will finish the series in a virtual tie. The occasionally-used .500-watch has the Astros ending the season at 87-75, well in the mix for a postseason spot.
On the Mound:
McCullers' last outing was a rough one - five innings, six hits and three walks against Boston. He was pitching on 10 days' rest - something the Astros are trying to do to keep his inning totals down. Entering this game, he had 69 and two-thirds innings in the majors, added to the 29 he had already thrown in Corpus (I am guessing that he has 60 innings left). But much like the last time he had a short outing (May 29 against the White Sox), he bounced back strongly tonight, walking none in seven innings of 5 hit, 5 strikeout ball. He gave up one earned run on a pair of base hits in the second frame.
McCullers faced David DeJesus in his first bat as an Angel. The at-bat lasted four pitches, and resulted in a strikeout looking on a breaking pitch away. Kole Calhoun followed with a swinging strikeout on another breaking pitch, and Pujols grounded to short for the final out of the first.
McCullers started the second quite well. David Murphy - in his first at-bat as an Angel - grounded one to the left side which Correa fielded and gunned to first in time. Erick Aybar followed with a one out double to CF - the ball was a fastball down that drifted glove side, and Aybar drove it away from a shaded Marisnick, to the RF side of CF. Marisnick took a good route, but Aybar took second without a serious throw. C.J. Cron then fouled out to first base for the second out, before Conor Gillaspie hit a line-drive gapper to the base of the RF bullpen. Marisnick, again, was shaded toward LF, and Gillaspie was not only able to drive Aybar home, but cruise into third base standing up. The offending pitch was an elevated mid-thigh change up, but it was on the very outer part of the plate, and Gillaspie put a solid swing on it, and the ball found grass, then the gap. Giavotella grounded to third for the final out, helped by Singleton, who made a nice scoop on a throw in the dirt.
Ex-stro Carlos Pérez opened the next inning with a grounder down the third base line. Valbuena dived to corral the ball then got to his feet, but couldn't nab the runner. Pérez stole second on DeJesus' strikeout (Hank Conger, as pointed out in the comments section a couple of days ago, ain't no catch-and-throw guy), and got to third on a wild pitch with one out. But he was stranded when McCullers struck out Calhoun for the second time (this time on a high fastball) and Pujols flew out to medium depth CF.
C.J. Cron spoiled a perfect fourth by hitting a double to RF. The pitch was a straight fastball away, not quite as high as Conger called for, and Cron went with the pitch and lined it into the CF-RF gap. Gillaspie grounded out for the third out. In the fifth, Carlos Pérez doubled down the LF line with one out, but another DeJesus strikeout (curveball down) and a Calhoun grounder stranded him there.
With a lead, McCullers was nails. He set down the next six hitters in order, and ended his night with 99 pitches thrown to complete 7 frames. Excellent result for him, both in terms of runs prevented, and in terms of having an economical outing. He was ably assisted by his defence, with Correa gunning down Aybar to end the sixth, and Altuve ranging up the middle, diving, never fully regaining his feet, and throwing out C.J. Cron while falling over to lead off the seventh. Must C link here.
Pat Neshek was nails, setting the side down in nine pitches for the eighth inning. That included a three pitch strikeout of Kole Calhoun. Gregerson struggled in the ninth - Pujols home run, infield single, bunt single (Gregerson tried to make a sliding, barehanded play), swinging strikeout, fielder's choice (runners on the corners), RBI single up the middle, then a fly out was the order of proceedings. Gregerson escaped with only two runs given up, and a plethora of soft infield hits in his debit column.
At the Plate:
As mentioned above, the Astros were no hit heading into the fifth frame. They managed to draw two walks - one in the third inning and one in the fourth inning - but a double play meant that Garrett Richards faced only one over the minimum for the first four innings. The double play was a little freakish - with no outs in the fourth, Preston Tucker was on first. Carlos Correa hit a hard grounder up the middle that bounced off Richards' about-to-land right ankle. The ball perfectly rebounded to Giavotella at a traditional second base without losing much pace. Giavotella flipped to Aybar for the force, and the double play was on. Correa was out at first by a couple of steps.
In the fifth, the Astros started hitting the ball hard. Luis Valbuena led off with a hard-hit line drive that bounced off the Mazda sign at the bottom of the out-of-town scoreboard. The pitch was a curveball away, and Murphy in left was playing in from the wall a little. He was unable to make the catch running back, and Valbuena cruised into scoring position. Valbuena went to third when Richards spiked a fastball and Pérez was unable to keep it close. Colby Rasmus drove Valbuena in by taking a low fastball and driving it about five yards short of the warning track in left field. Valbuena tagged, but Murphy's throw sailed well off line, and the game was tied.
And not for long!! Hammerin' Hank Conger was the next hitter, and he hit a hard single over the shift into RF for a hit. Singleton popped out for the first out, but Handsome Jake doubled down the LF line, and off the façade of the stands where they jut out in foul ground. Conger went to third, and scored when Jose Altuve rolled over on a curveball, grounding it softly into the 5.5 hole Third baseman Gillaspie dived to snag the ball, but as soon as he left his feet, Altuve had a hit. That put runners on the corners for Preston Tucker to watch in awe as Handsome Jake and Jose Altuve combined to TOOTBLAN their way out of scoring any further runs. Altuve tried to take second, Pérez's throw was good, Altuve was toast and knew it, so he opted to get in a run down. Marisnick took off but he got caught in then eventual run-down, and the inning was done. Wonderful work from ex-stro Pérez, Marisnick did exactly the right thing trying to go home once Altuve was hung up, but overaggressiveness again made me cringe.
As I said in the last game recap, there is a fine line between aggressive and kamikaze baserunning. In expanding on that point, I wonder whether Altuve needs to pick his spots better. Preston Tucker underscored that point by hammering a 2-2 pitch into the RF bullpen when he resumed his at-bat in the bottom of the sixth. Tucker took a breaking pitch away that was hung a little, and he got around on it with his trademark flat swing and low finish, and the ball disappeared into the home bullpen.
Carlos Correa followed with a single through the right side, but he only advanced to second on a grounder before the inning ended. The next hit - and run scored - was from Singleton in the seventh when he drove a 1-out, 1-1 elevated breaking pitch into the Astros' bullpen for another solo home run. That pitch caught too much of the plate and was pretty much thigh-high, and Singleton didn't miss. It was clearly a mistake from Richards, however, whose night ended there.
Starting the home half of the eighth, the Angels trotted out lefty Jose Álvarez. The Astros loaded the bases with one out on an infield single, and end-of-the-bat blooper into shallow LF-CF, and a walk. Hank Conger hit a sac-fly to LF, scoring the speedy Evan Gattis (who reached on an infield single), then Jon Singleton hit a seeing-eye single up the middle to score Valbuena. That put the Astros up 6-1 (at the time), and despite allowing two runs in the top of the ninth, the victory was sealed.
The name of the game for the Astros today was hits all through the order. If they were clustered anywhere, they were clustered toward the bottom. The bottom two hitters (Singleton and Marisnick) went 2-3 with a walk and a home run, and 2-4 with a double respectively. Also on base twice was Luis Valbuena (2-4, 2B) and Preston Tucker (1-3, BB, HR). Rasmus (0-2, BB) and Conger (1-3) both and sac flies. Hits were also credited to Altuve, Correa and Gattis (all 1-4).
The bottom of the fifth was the turning point. Valbuena led off the frame with a double the other way for the Astros' first hit of the night. He advanced on a wild pitch, and scored on a sac fly for the first out. The Astros kept on pressing, with Hammerin' Hank singling, Marisnick doubling with two outs, and Altuve reaching on a slow roller into the 5.5 hole. That put the Astros on the lead... but they TOOTBLAN'd themselves out of a really big inning by getting a little too aggressive on the bases.
Man of the Match:
Lance McCullers, who is awesome. Not an easy outing, but he answered all the questions he was asked, and showed top-of-the-rotation command and control, as well as his ridiculous breaking ball. Anyone else happy with Lance?? I thought so.
Goat of the Game:
No goat. Not with a sweep on the line.
Jed's back, and will start at third tomorrow. Roberto Hernández is DFA'd, sadly. I note that Joe Thatcher opted for free agency after clearing waivers, too. I wonder what Hernández will do...
Matt Shoemaker (5-7, 4.55) versus Scott Kazmir (6-5, 2.24)
Shoemaker struggled to start the season, with his ERA peaking at 6.61 on May 9 after a game against the Astros. He allowed 6 ER in 3 innings in that game. His last five outings have been solid: 2ER in 6IP, 2ER in 5.2IP, 2ER in 5.2 IP, 1ER in 1 relief inning, 0ER (2H, 3BB) in 6IP... with the most recent outing listed last.
8 Eastern, 7 Central.