Vincent Velasquez (0-1, 3.91) versus Brian Johnson (0-0, -.--)
The Astros opened the series against the Red Sox with a very solid 8-3 win. The Sox, after their double-header in Anaheim, opted to remain in LA for the night, and catch a morning flight to Houston. They apparently arrived at the ballpark at around 2:30pm - in plenty of time for drills and batting practice. It must have felt a little like an afternoon game for them.
On paper, the Red Sox lineup is impressive. Anyone who reads Fangraphs knows about Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts. The top two free-agent infielders of the 2014-15 offseason sit at 5 and 6 of the lineup. Ryan Hanigan has been a pretty decent offensive catcher, Dustin Pedroia is an ex-MVP, David Ortiz is famous and Brock Holt! is an All Star. I look at that lineup and shiver in dreadful anticipation.
However, on the pitching side, the Red Sox are not nearly as good, and the Astros had the opportunity to get into the bullpen early. The Sox were also starting a lefty (not good for the Astros) but one who was making his ML debut. The Astros managed to work the Red Sox pitchers reasonably hard, but perhaps not to the extent that they wanted.
And most notably, David Ortiz did not headbutt a ball into the stands. On to the recap!
On the Mound:
Velasquez finally recorded his first Major League win, with six solid innings. The abovementioned scary-looking Red Sox lineup only managed to score in one inning. In two other innings, they had a runner at second base, but neither time did the runner advance because the players behind him struck out. Velasquez needed only 91 pitches to get through 6 innings, and he struck out seven while walking none. He allowed seven hits, but four were clustered into a single inning. He worked harder, threw more strikes, and whatever he worked on when he was in Corpus with Doug Brocail worked very well.
Velasquez opened by enticing fly outs from the first two batters. Xander Bogaerts then hit a hard grounder up the middle which Altuve fielded, but he booted the ball into LF. It was recorded as a hit (rather than a hit, and a one-base error), but Bogaerts was stranded at second when David Ortiz struck out on high cheese. Velasquez's fastball was not getting fouled off tonight.
Velasquez struck out the side in the second, throwing only one ball in the process. In the third, Alejandro De Aza singled on a hung 0-2 change up, then Ryan Hanigan - who killed the Astros at Fenway before the All Star Break - doubled on a line drive to left field. Mookie Betts followed with an excuse-me double down the RF line, over the 1B bag. He tried to hold up on a check swing, and a shifted first-baseman Marwin González was too far off the line to make the play on a roller of moderate speed. Betts then scored after heading to third on a groundout, touching home on a Bogaerts broken bat single over a drawn in infield. At this point, the Red Sox led, 3-1.
Velasquez bounced back well. He allowed a Brock Holt! double off the scoreboard in the fourth with one out, but Holt was only a spectator as De Aza and Hanigan both struck out. Velasquez retired the side in order in the fifth on seven pitches, and he allowed a one-out single while facing the minimum in the sixth, on 10 pitches, punctuated with a lovely 3-6-1 double play. Velasquez can really field his position - he was off the mound like a shot.
The Astros took a 7-3 lead in the bottom half of the sixth inning, so Will Harris relieved. He also allowed a one-out infield single, and also faced the minimum by virtue of a solid double-play. Pat Neshek did not rely on any double-plays to face the minimum in the eighth. Josh Fields set the side down in order in the ninth, but he allowed some hard hit balls. Marisnick (a line drive off the bat of David Ortiz that was slicing away from him) and Valbeuna (a diving stop of his right, and a strong throw to first to retire Ramírez) both made stellar defensive plays behind him. Fields struck out Sandoval to end the game on a high fastball.
At the Plate:
The Astros scored early, then lost the lead, then scored the last seven runs of the game unanswered, with some very encouraging signs for Astros hitters becoming evident. In the first, Jose Altuve reached on a five-pitch walk, then stole second before heading to third on a Marwin González single - a line drive on a high fastball that was too high for Dustin Pedroia to corral. Altuve scored on Correa's sac-fly - a hard-hit drive to CF that Betts only just got - and the Astros were up early. Evan Gattis ended the good times by grounding into a double-play.
In the second, Conger and Carter both walked with one out. L.J. Hoes (starting in RF against the lefty) lined out on a hard shot to LF, and Marisnick flew out to end the frame. In the third, the side went down swinging (all on breaking pitches), but they worked Johnson for 19 pitches in the process, with one 2-2 and two full counts being recorded. In the fourth, the side went in order on a much less impressive 11 pitches.
The fifth was the turning point of the game. Chris Carter singled to the CF-RF gap on a soft fly ball that dropped in just short of a diving De Aza. L.J. Hoes singled to left field on a hard line drive that Han-Ram took a great route on, keeping Carter at second. Handsome Jake put runners on the corners with a fielder's choice, with Hoes retired at second.
What happened next was interesting. Brian Johnson seemed anxious about throwing over - he lobbed the ball twice to the first baseman, Brock Holt!, like a shot-putter. Handsome Jake saw this, took a big lead, and raced for second on the next pitch which was an elevated fastball. Hanigan's throw got away a little in the sense that it ran toward the RF side of second base, and hit Marisnick on the left elbow as he was sliding into the bag. If the throw had been a foot or two closer to second base, Marisnick probably would have been toast. The rebound took the ball toward the LF-CF gap, and Carter scored easily, closely followed by Marisnick, who was waved home by Gary Pettis. It was a good send, because Hanley Ramírez's momentum was taking him away from home plate, and his throwing arm is not fabulous, so Marisnick scored easily.
Altuve completed his at-bat by drawing a walk, and Justin Masterson relieved. Masterson promptly hit Marwin González with a pitch on the right leg (the first of two times he did that - is there a feud or something??) With runners on first and second, Carlos Correa sliced a line drive into the RF corner to score Altuve. The ball was a low sinker, under the zone but in the middle of the plate, and Correa went down and sliced it into the corner. It bounced into the stands down the RF line for a double, just catching the chalk. González then scored from third on Evan Gattis' soft grounder just to the left of the pitchers mound, which was the final scoring play in the 4-run inning.
The Astros added a couple of runs in the sixth. Hammerin' Hank Conger continued his recent peppering from the Crawford Boxes by doubling off the very top of the LF wall on a sinker away. The ball hit a foot or so below the yellow line. Chris Carter followed with a Carter-esque slicing line drive home run into the bullpen in right. The pitch was a low sinker, and Carter went down and got it, mashing it into the bullpen. The next two hitters went in order, but the Astros managed to get two runners in scoring position on an Altuve infield single (a dribbler down the like that Sandoval tried to will foul), a González HBP (this time, the left leg) and a wild pitch. Neither scored.
In the seventh, lefty Tommy Layne sent Singleton (one half of a double substitution for a hobbled Marwin González) Valbuena and Conger down in order. In the eighth, a Carter and Hoes were retired by Junichi Tazawa, but then Handsome Jake tripled to deep right (a line drive gapper on a breaking ball away), and Jose Altuve drove him in with a single to RF (a wee line drive on a pitch off the plate away).
Very solid nights for lead-off hitter Jose Altuve (2-3, 2xBB) and seven-hitter Chris Carter (2-3, BB, HR) on his return from an ankle injury. Marwin González reached base three times, two on hit-by-pitches, one to either ankle, and both from Justin Masterson. The bottom four of the order all recorded hits, including Hank Conger (1-3, 2B), Chris Carter (above), L.J. Hoes (1-4) and Handsome Jake (1-4, 3B). Carlos Correa went 1-3 with a double. Marisnick and Altuve both had stolen bases.
The Astros drew level in the fifth inning. With one out, Chris Carter was on third base, and Handsome Jake was on first. Brian Johnson may have been modelling his game on Jon Lester a little too much, and he nervously lobbed a couple of throws over to first. Marisnick took off, Hanigan's throw hit him on the forearm, and the ball bounded far enough away for Marisnick to score on the play. Two batters later, the Astros took a lead that they would not relinquish.
Man of the Match:
A triumvirate of nominees for Man of the Match. Jose Altuve had a great night leading off, reaching base four times and stealing one base. Chris Carter reached base three times, and mashed a line-drive home run the other way. But Vince Velasquez, who was strong in five of the six innings that he pitched, wins the Man of the Match for his efforts, and to mark his first Major League win.
Goat of the Game:
Evan Gattis - 0-3 with an RBI grounder, a total of 6 pitches seen. Gah!
On the Morrow:
Collin McHugh (10-5, 4.35) versus soon-to-be-recalled Joe Kelly (2-5, 5.67), who was dropped from the rotation earlier in the year. Kelly seems to have righted the ship at Pawtucket, with a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings over 4 appearances.
8 Eastern, 7 Central.