Lance McCullers (4-3, 2.52) versus Wade Miley (8-8, 4.49)
Woke up this morning to the news of the Kazmir trade, and the new nickname ("the Brothers K" © the Constable) for the Astros' starting rotation. Great news for the Astros... and all they needed was a strong start from Lance McKullers, and they could complete the sweep. Kollin McHugh was solid last night, and Skott Feldman haven't pitched for a few days. I am guessing that the rotation for the rest of the season is set: no room for Vince Velasquez - kan't work a K in there anywhere.
But seriously, this recap is all about the final game of a successful home stand. The Astros won on a walk off home run - their first of the season - to take the game, 5-4. They have righted their season in style, winning five of six - all at home - before embarking on a very short three-game road trip. The next six games are crucial - three against the Royals (away) and three against the Angels (home) before getting nine straight games against sub-.500 competition. And because the Angels finally lost tonight, the Astros are now only one game back in the AL West.
This game was a very interesting one to watch - a real high-stakes affair. Lots of crucial plays were made, including runners thrown out a the plate, runners thrown out at third, runners nearly thrown out at second, runners picked off first, guys losing balls in the lights, and vital home runs. When the dust settled, the Astros had completed the sweep, partly due to the walk-off heroics of the shortest man in major-league baseball.
On the Mound:
Lance McCullers got the start, and he didn't have much on offer tonight. His line was a potentially disastrous 5IP, 6H, 3BB, 2K line, but he allowed just two earned runs. Ten baserunners in five innings isn't great (one reached on a Correa error), but keeping it to two earned runs was better than what it could have been. McCullers neither had much in the way of fastball control, nor was he spinning his pitches well - one hung curveball of which was hammered by a struggling Mike Napoli into the signs above the Crawford Boxes.
He gave up a run on two doubles in the first, and a run on the abovementioned home run in the second. He escaped further damage in the second when catcher Ryan Hanigan tried to score from second on a grounder into shallow CF, and was tagged out at the plate. Tucker's throw wasn't perfect, but Conger corralled the ball well, and when Hanigan slid, his left foot got caught up just short of the plate. That was enough for Conger to apply the tag, and that ended the second frame.
Back-to-back two-out walks was the story of the third, and in the fourth, McCullers had arguably his strongest frame. Mike Napoli opened the inning with a double to LF, but McCullers got the next three batters in order. In the fifth, McCullers' only baserunner was a reached-on-error on a ground ball to shortstop. Correa muffed a hard-hit ball.
Tony Sipp got the sixth inning, and he retired the side in order - the first time the Red Stockings went in order in the game. Chad Qualls followed suit in the seventh (he looks MUCH better), and in the bottom half of the seventh, the Astros turned a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead. Will Harris relieved to start the eighth, and he allowed a lead off home run to David Ortiz on a high fastball that missed glove side, then a bloop single that just dropped inside the RF line to Hanley Ramírez. Han-Ram stole second on a reviewed play (he picked up his foot off the bag when he was standing up, and Correa quickly tried to tag him). Harris bounced back to strike out Pablo Sandoval and entice Alejandro De Aza into a pop up, then Luke Gregerson came on for a 4-out save in a one run game.
About that save... it never happened. In stunning play, Mike Napoli looked to hit the ball straight down the throat of Preston Tucker in left field. Tucker didn't move - I think he lost the ball in the lights - and the ball sailed over his head. Two steps backward, and he would have made a comfortable catch, and he had plenty of time to do so. Han-Ram scored from second, and the game was tied.
Gregerson didn't come out in the ninth in the tied game, which I thought was interesting. Josh Fields did instead, and he allowed only a lead-off single in a scoreless frame. He turned a slick fielder's choice on a grounder back to the mound, and he busted David Ortiz inside for a simple infield pop up. Fields was rewarded with the win, thanks to Altuve's walk off Crawford Boxes home run.
At the Plate:
The Astros constantly had Wade Miley in trouble, but were unable to put the game away for a variety of reasons - many of which were due to baserunning. Marwin González made sure that baserunning was not an issue early, when he took a 2-1 fastball inside and deposited it into the Crawford Boxes, about 5 yards fair. It looked to be a no-doubt shot, and I think it hit off the façade above the boxes. The inning ended on a TOOTBLAN - Evan Gattis singled and was promptly picked off. He slipped, realised he was toast and tried to run for second. Mike Napoli tried to chase him down. The sight of those to guys running was comedy gold - Gattis is slightly faster than Napoli.
In the second, the Astros worked two walks with two outs. They worked Miley hard in that frame - both strikeouts were on 2-2 pitches, and both walks were on full counts. In the third, Jose Altuve led off with a bunt single toward the first baseman, and Carlos Correa walked with one out to join him on the bases. But a fielder's choice and a groundout ended the frame. After going in order in the fourth, the Astros managed more traffic on the bases with a one out double to deep left off the bat of Altuve, just to the CF side of the Crawford Boxes. Altuve tried to advance to third on a blocked pitch, but he was thrown out on a bang-bang play at third - Panda's tag swept his arm away from the base. The two walks that followed would have advanced him to third anyhow, but Altuve didn't have the benefit of hindsight. I just wonder - when a pitcher is constantly working around trouble, it perhaps isn't the best idea to take too many risks on the bases.
In the sixth, the Astros went in order on five pitches. Tucker, Carter and Conger were the culprits, but Carter's out was a loud out on a line shot to left. In the seventh, the Astros made hay against the reliever and ex-Ranger, Alexi Ogando. Colby Rasmus started the scoring with a one-out, pinch hit home run to draw level - the pitch was a 3-2 fastball down into the LH hitters happy zone and Rasmus nailed it into the RF bleachers. Jose Altuve then hit a clean single to CF, closer Tazawa relieved, and Marwin González doubled over the head of Mookie Betts in CF to score him. This ball was a 2-2 splitter that didn't sink much, and stayed just in the zone. González crushed it from the left side of the plate, but when he dug for third, he was thrown on on the relay. Carlos Correa, with the bases empty and two outs, doubled on a line shot into LF right down the line, then he scored when Evan Gattis singled up the middle on a hard hit grounder on a pitch away. That put the Astros 4-2 ahead.
The side went in order in the eighth. That cleared the stage for Jose Altuve, who, with one out, took a 3-1 inside fastball from Craig Breslow. He hit a hard line drive that just cleared the yellow line about the Crawford Boxes, around two-thirds of the way toward the CF end. The Red Sox reviewed but to no avail, and the game was over. Which is just as well, because Altuve already had a couple of Gatorade Showers, and wouldn't have been able to play on without changing his uniform.
Leading the offence was the top four hitters in the order. Jose Altuve led of, and went 4-5 with a double and a home run. Marwin González was nearly as good, going 2-3 with a double, a home run, and a walk. Carlos Correa - batting third - went 1-2 with a double and two walks. Evan Gattis went 2-4. The next four hitters in the order combined for no hits and two walks. The only other hit was via Colby Rasmus who pinch hit in the nine-hole, and went 1-2 with a home run.
Marwin González had just doubled Jose Altuve home to take the lead in the seventh inning. Carlos Correa followed with a double whipped into the LF corner - a hard hit line drive that Sandoval had no play on. Correa scored on Evan Gattis' single. The Astros could really have done with González still on base at that point, but the extra run scored with two outs on two hits off the toughest of the Sox's relievers was vital.
Man of the Match:
Jose Altuve. 4-5, and a walk off home run. The Astros need him to get hot. González and Correa combined with Altuve to go 7-10 with three walks, three doubles, and two home runs. Not bad from the 1-3 hitters. Pity they combined to get thrown out at third base twice.
Goat of the Game:
Preston Tucker. Sorry, bro. 0-4 and a misplayed line drive into LF.
The Astros head to Kansas City. New-stro Scott Kazmir (5-5, 2.38) makes his Houston debut against Jeremy Guthrie (7-5, 5.36)
8 Eastern, 7 Central.