Vincent Velasquez (0-0, 3.72) versus Edinson Vólquez (8-4, 3.18)
So, loyal and undoubtedly handsome Astros County readers, I need to apologise for my recent absence. A combination of things led to my lack of game-recap-pery - not that I will bore you all with the details - but I couldn't let a sweep of the other good team in the AL (or, alternatively, the AL All Star Team) and the midpoint of the season go without comment.
And it's a great time to be an Astros fan - best I can remember, anyhow. I was an Astros fan from the late 1990's, when I relied on the generosity of ESPN to screen Astros games on Sunday Night Baseball and Wednesday Night Baseball. Occasionally, the ESPN crew got bored of showing the Yankees kicking everyone's butts, and turned to the NL to watch the Astros. I got to watch a little more as the century turned, and the Astros remained strong into the mid-2000's. This is - in my opinion - a better team than the mid-noughties version, which despite the presence of the Killer B's, were a largely punchless outfit that relied on a bargain-basement Roger Clemens and his pitching comrades to compete. Aside from a brief period of 2006, and again briefly in 2008, the Astros simply haven't competed. This team is a breath of fresh air, and it is amazing to think that they could be at the start of their tenure at the top, not at the back-end of the peak like it was in 2005 and 2006.
Anyhow, all of that is a long winded way of saying that this half-season has been a blast, and that continued tonight with a sweep of the Royals. This was the pitching matchup that favoured the Astros the least, and despite being in an early hole, they pulled ahead, lost the lead, then scored a lone vital run to take the game by a score of 6-5. The Astros have some fresh injury worries, but they get a day off before heading out on a pre-All Star Break road trip with the AC staff in a fairly jubilant mood. The Astros are holders of the most wins in the AL, and lead the AL West by 5 games over the second-placed Angels.
On the Mound:
Velasquez looks more and more comfortable every time he takes the mound. This wasn't a glitzy effort, like the one where he practically shut down the Yankees until Chris Young did his Albert Pujols impersonation, like he ALWAYS does against the Astros. However, this start did show some moxie, as well as some dominance, but ultimately Velasquez was again left without a win. His final line of six-and-one-third, five hits and one walk against seven strikeouts, allowing 4 earned runs isn't going to get anyone to call off hounds hunting for starting pitchers, but this could represent a moment when he earns more faith in his own abilities.
Velasquez started badly. He got two outs without incident before allowing two big extra-base hits on two consecutive pitches. Lorenzo Cain tripled on a fastball (Springer was shaded toward RF, and was playing shallow), which he drove all the way to the base of the wall to the left-field side of Tal's Hill. The pitch was a solid location down-and-away, and would likely have been called a strike, but perhaps it was a little straight. The very next pitch, Kendrys Morales took an outside fastball that missed a tiny bit up, and he hit a line-drive the other way for a lefties dream into the Crawford Boxes. Castro sprung out to converse with Velasquez, and whatever he said, it probably worked, because Sal Pérez popped out for the third out.
The next inning, the Royals were at it again. Alex Gordon singled to right on the first pitch of the frame, then went to second on a wild pitch, and scored when Alex Rios hit a liner to right field. At this point, it was no outs in the second, in a three run hole, but Velasquez knuckled down to set the remaining hitters of the inning down in order.
Then he dominated. One strikeout while retiring the side in order in the third, fourth and fifth innings. He faced the minimum in the sixth, thanks largely to an around-the-horn double play after a Lorenzo Cain one-out single. Things ended badly in the seventh - Sal Pérez walked on four pitches, then Alex Gordon struck out swinging (on a wonderful inside breaking pitch) for the first out. Josh Fields relieved, and he allowed a one-out single to Alex Rios (just wide of shortstop) and a two-out triple (full count fastball down and away, lined into the LF-CF gap) to Jarrod Dyson to allow Velasquez's and his own runner to score, and tie the game.
The eighth was significant for Pat Neshek - in relief of Joe Thatcher, who retired Moustakas with some lefty-on-lefty violence - hitting Kendrys Morales on his ample butt with a slider. The home plate ump - potentially concerned about a beanball war - warned both benches, but of course the irony is that the Astros had three hitters hit-by-pitches, and two scored while one struck out. Luke Gregerson came on for the ninth, and he preserved the narrow lead in a perfect inning. Gregerson has looked much better after a shaky month in May and some of June.
At the Plate:
The Astros threatened early, after George Springer and Jose Altuve both reached (and later completed a double-steal) in the first. But neither scored, with both Gattis and Valbuena striking out, and Chris Carter narrowly missing a home run by driving the ball to deep CF. Carter - who looks to have returned to how we remembered him for the second half of 2014 - was the architect of the first run of the game for the Astros when he hit a one-out home run in his next at-bat (the fourth inning). Volquez tried to bust him inside on a 2-2 curveball, and Carter hit a high drive that hooked into the CF-side of the Crawford Boxes. Carter drew his hands in well, and was a little tied up, but he hit it well enough, and it still got well back into the boxes. Marwin González then homered leading off the fifth - Volquez tried to bust him inside with a fastball, but it leaked arm-side and caught too much of the plate, and González made no mistake in driving it out to RF. That made the score 3-2, Royals.
The scoring was not done for the fifth, either. Jason Castro, the next batter, worked a walk, then George Springer was hit by a pitch that ultimately resulted in his leaving the game. Springer was hit very close to the right wrist, on the same side of the wrist where the little and ring fingers are (which is important, because that is the most important part of the hand for grip strength). Still with no outs, Jose Altuve singled up the middle, and took second when Jarrod Dyson tried to gun Springer down at third base. With two runners in scoring position, and on an 0-2 count after having been made to look very silly by Edinson Vólquez's offspeed and breaking pitches, Evan Gattis took a slider that caught too much of the strike zone, and he lined it over the second baseman's head into RF. Gattis' at bat ended in a TOOTBLAN - trying to take second - which is a pity because there were still no outs at that stage, but all reaching base would have given him was a premiere viewing position to observe Valbeuna and Carter striking out. Astros 5, Royals 3.
The Astros threatened again in the next frame. Jon Singleton singled to lead off the frame, then Preston Tucker followed with another single (against a situational lefty, too). Both hits were to straight-away RF, and both were hit hard, Singleton's on the ground, and Tuckers' in the air. But a groundout sandwiched around two strikeouts ended the frame without the runners touching home. González's strikeout was especially weird - he was hit on the back (right) leg while swinging for the third strike.
The decisive run of the game scored in the seventh. Jose Altuve was hit by a pitch leading off the frame. He was also hit on the right forearm - much closer to the elbow than Springer, and so hopefully this will have less of a lasting effect. Regardless, Altuve doesn't need his forearms to steal bases, which is what he did three pitches later, and then he advanced to third on Evan Gattis' hard-hit liner, which got away from pitcher Kelvin Herrera.
Valbeuna then walked on four pitches to put runners on the corners with one out, which set up the double-play. Chris Carter was the batter, and he grounded a slow roller to third. Moustakas charged the ball and went home to try and nab Altuve, but Altuve was ruled safe. Replays (after the appeal from Ned Yost) showed that the play was very, very close, but there was not enough evidence to overturn the call, and the go-ahead run was confirmed.
A Jason Castro double was the only action in the bottom of the eighth. Goodness, look at Wade Davis' ERA: 0.26! Castro had a strong night, walking once while going 1-3. Chris Carter went 1-4, but hit a home run and scored Altuve on a fielder's choice groundout. Also going 1-4 was Marwin González (HR), Preston Tucker, Jon Singleton and Evan Gattis (2RBI). Jose Altuve had a standout night, going 3-4 with an RBI, stealing two bases, scoring the winning run, and reaching on a hit-by-pitch as well. George Springer had a promising night cut short, going 1-2 with a stolen base.
After Marwin González ambushed Edinson Vólquez leading off the fifth, Castro followed with a walk, then George Springer wore a pitch to the right wrist to put runners on first and second with no outs. Singles from Altuve and Gattis resulted in three total runners scoring, and the Astros took an important 5-3 lead. They weren't able to hold it, but I like how solid the plate appearances were after the González homer.
Man of the Match:
Jose Altuve seems to have returned from his hamstring-related rest with renewed energy. He had a very solid 3-4 night, scoring 2 runs, stealing two bases, and wearing a pitch for the team.
Goat of the Game:
A sweep over the AL All Stars would have me prefer to not award a goat.
Day off tomorrow, then the Astros will meet the Red Sox at Fenway Park. I have watched the Astros play at Fenway Park before - but that is a story for another time. It looks like Handsome Dan Straily and his sub-90 mph fastball will make a triumphant return to the majors. He is opposed by Justin Mastersen (3-2, 5.58).
7 Eastern, 6 Central, but remember that this game is Friday night, and Thursday is a night off.
Watch out for George Springer's progress. It looks like the plan for Handsome Jake Marisnick was for a longer rehab assignment, but he may be activated in time to get to Boston to either start in CF, or provide cover for Springer or Rasmus. It seems that Colby Rasmus may not have recovered from his infection in time to meet the team in Boston, either. My pick is that Rasmus heads to Boston, and Marisnick joins the team in Cleveland, with either Singleton or Santana being optioned to make room for him. There is a non-zero chance that Marisnick is optioned to Fresno, with Rasmus and Springer manning CF. There is also a non-zero chance that someone heads to Fresno to make room for Jonathan Villar to come up and provide cover over multiple positions
Update: it seems that Springer may be headed to the DL.
Someone will need to be optioned for Handsome Dan Straily, who is not on the 25-man. That space may be created by George Springer, if Rasmus is able to return immediately. Either way, the Meat Wagon is running out of room, and the All Star Break can't arrive fast enough.