Jeremy Hellickson (7-6, 4.60) versus Dallas Keuchel (12-5, 2.32)
We like to publish things with a little bit of irony around here at Astros County. This is The Constable's blog, and he strikes me as a man with a wry sense of humour (as well as long, flowing hair, a flat and muscular abdomen and hands the size of dinner plates). I like to refer to Hank Conger as Hammerin' Hank, which has a certain sense of irony to it (his other nickname is sometimes Handsome Hank, and I will refuse to speculate as to how much irony that nickname draws upon). Well, tonight, there was no irony whatsoever in Hammerin' Hank's nickname - he singlehandedly beat up on the Diamondbacks with a two-home run night in an Astros rout. And in doing so, he also became a little more handsome - to me at least, although I did not ask my wife for confirmation.
What a week for the Astros catchers. There was a little bit of debate about the relative merits of each catcher during the Royals' series - a commentator (not entirely incorrectly) took me to task for suggesting that Conger "should" start a game against a lefty. He or she rightly pointed out that Conger's arm is well behind Castro's arm, which is correct. Expanding on that, I think both catchers are good pitch framers, but I personally think that Castro receives the ball better. Conger had come through with a couple of hits in the week or two prior to that comment, but then Jason Castro busted loose with two three-run home runs in the last two games. Conger responded in kind tonight, hitting a solo shot, and then the Astros' first Grand Slam of the year to put the game away for good.
Anyhow, in clarifying my comments about who should start between Conger and Castro, it seems that both catchers exist in a 60-40 time-share of sorts, with Castro on the fat side of that roster. So it seems logical that Conger may get starts against lefties, only because he should be a little better against them than Castro, mostly by virtue of his switch-hit-ery. If there are no lefties starting against the Astros, what other tiebreakers could be used?? It seems that one of the tiebreakers that could be used may be to pair Keuchel with Conger, because Keuchel controls the running game so well, thereby minimising the effects of Conger's noodle arm. Perhaps. Dunno.
Anywho, I am very glad that the Astros have both catchers active at the moment, and they have both hit well recently. Conger had a banner night - the best by an Astros' nine-hole hitter for about 50 years, according to the TV telecast - and he led the 'stros to an impressive 9-2 win. The Angels ran their losing streak to five to drop three games back, and the Rangers also lost by giving up three runs late in regulation, and eventually losing in 11 frames. Cole Hamels gave up five runs. So the Astros lead the Angels by three and the Rangers by eight, which is a handy lead with less than sixty games to play. But the division is still well in play.
On the Mound:
Dallas Keuchel got the start, and that meant a whole bunch of orange T-shirts and fake beards sitting down the LF line tonight. I only ever get to watch the games on TV (aside from the odd visit to MMP), and the noise in the stadium has definitely increased over the last few weeks. There seems to be a lot fewer empty seats, which is also great to see. Anyhow, with Keuchel's Korner in full party mode, the first inning flew by with three consecutive grounders on ten pitches. It looked like another shutout loomed, but that feeling didn't last long.
Keuchel sometimes gets into trouble nibbling, as we have seen this year. He spends so much time on the edges of the zone, I think, that if he is not accurately predicting the movement on his pitches, he can wind up missing, and that looks like he is pitching around batters. He doesn't have the stuff to miss in the middle of the zone consistently, so if one of his pitches is moving more than normal, he can struggle. Which is what he said happened in the post-game comments - Kuechel felt that his two-seamer had a little more bite than normal, so he found himself behind the hitters a lot in the second inning.
Keuchel found himself in a 3-0 count to the first batter of the second inning, Welington Castillo. He bounced back to strike him out for the first out. Things went south from there - Aaron Hill got into a 2-1 count before he singled against the shift through the right side (Chris Carter missed the grounder with his dive), then Yasmany Tomás walked to put runners on first and second with one out. Jarrod Saltalamacchia ambushed Keuchel on the first pitch, and he singled back up the middle to score Hill from second. Chris Owings stuck out looking (on what seemed like a generous call) after being 2-0 then 3-1 up in the count. A Pennington walk (0-1, then four consecutive balls) loaded the bases, then Keuchel walked in the second run of the inning (a fastball that got away from him, missing up) after an 8-pitch battle with Ender Inciarte. Nick Ahmed grounded out to shortstop off the end of the bat to close the frame. At that point, the Astros trailed 2-1.
Whatever it was that bugged Keuchel, he sorted it out before the third inning started. He struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Welington Castillo swinging (both on breaking pitches, which he hadn't thrown many of to that point) and Aaron Hill looking (on a fastball away). The side went in order in the fourth as well, this time on 8 pitches. In the fifth, the first two hitters went in order, then Altuve booted a grounder off the bat of Nick Ahmed to allow him to reach on an error. Keuchel - sitting just under 100 pitches, came out for the sixth, and he struck out the first two hitters before enticing Yasmany Tomás into a ground out. Keuchel ended the night allowing five baserunners (2 hits, three walks) while striking out 8 in five innings for two earned runs. A very odd line.
What happened next was a bit bizarre. Josh Fields had been warming up in the fifth, perhaps to start the sixth or be ready if Keuchel got into trouble. Fields instead came out to start the seventh, but only lasted one at bat - which ended when Saltalamacchia flew out to CF. Hinch came out and removed Fields and replaced him with Velasquez, with no runners on. My theory is that Velasquez was meant to come out of the 'pen to start the frame but there was a miscommunication, or alternatively he wasn't quite ready to come out to start the frame, but regardless, Fields lasted only one batter.
It didn't really matter, however, as Velasquez showed dominant stuff in facing one batter over the minimum for the remaining two-and-two-thirds. Velasquez opened up by striking out Chris Owings on a peach of a 1-2 slider. Owings swung over it and missed, but the pitch was also a strike on the very edge of the zone, down and away to the righty. Velasquez retired two on ground balls in the eighth (with the other being retired on a fly ball), and after walking the leadoff hitter (Rule 5 draftee Oscar Hernández) in the ninth, he set the side down on two strikeouts and a foul out. Note is made that Velazquez has been demoted to Corpus to pitch out of the bullpen, making room for Mike Fiers.
At the Plate:
The Astros continue to show depth throughout their order, with contributions again coming from the bottom of the order. They have a very interesting balance to their lineup now - and it will be interesting to see how Gómez improves this depth. Literally any of their lineup can knock one out at any time. Chris Carter was batting eighth, for goodness sake, and if he gets going, then watch out.
The first few innings of the game were notable for the light. The sun was shining in through the windows that face out to Crawford Street, putting the mound in bright light, and home plate in the shade. I thought that the hitters tended to be out in front of the changeups more than they may have been in a more even light, but it didn't matter to Correa, who I suspect is super-human.
In the first inning, Altuve and Gómez both went down on ground balls, before Carlos Correa got out in front of a changeup down the middle (that missed arm-side-and-up), but he kept it fair while floating it into the Crawford Boxes. It wasn't a cheapie by any stretch - going at least five rows deep - but as soon as he hit it, I thought that he was well out in front of it, and it would result in either a long strike (and a souvenir into Keuchel's Korner) or a foul out. But no, Correa managed to keep it around 5 yards fair, and the Astros took an early lead on an impressive bit of hitting.
The lead didn't last long, and the Astros entered the bottom of the second with a 2-1 deficit. Evan Gattis led off with a four-pitch walk before Jed Lowrie singled on a line-drive to RF, putting runners on first and second with no outs. Colby Rasmus responded by hitting a hard line drive to the left side, against he shift, but he picked out the only fielder on that side (Aaron Hill), who corralled the ball with some difficulty, and stepped on third for the force. On the next pitch, the Chris Carter grounded it to third again, but this time it resulted in an inning-ending double-play.
Leading off the third, Hammerin' Hank homered to RF. The pitch was a fastball that was meant to be down and in the middle of the plate, but Hellickson missed up, and Conger turned on it, with a high one-handed flourish at the end of the swing. The ball went about 10 rows back into the RF stands, just beside the groundsman's access road. It was a nice piece of hitting to lead off the frame, and drew the Astros level at 2-2.
After the next three Astros went in order, they entered the bottom of the fourth tied. Preston Tucker smashed a line drive to right, but into the shift, and second baseman Chris Owings flagged it down in shallow right, then nailed a strong throw to first. A couple of yards either side, and that was a hard hit single. Evan Gattis then drilled a 1-1 pitch to deep CF - he hammered it on a line, and the ball bounced on the warning track, just to the LF side of Tal's Hill. CF Inciarte gave up on catching it early - I thought he could have gotten there - instead opting to play the carom off the LF-CF power alley wall. He played the carom well, and Gattis stopped at second, although I think everyone in the stadium wanted him to dig for third.
Gattis nearly TOOTBLAN'd his way into an out - Jed Lowrie grounded to short, and Gattis took off for third. Nick Ahmed was surprised to see Gattis take off, and the ball came off the heel of his glove for a bobble and an error. With runners on the corners, Colby Rasmus wore a breaking pitch off his back foot, loading the bases, then Chris Carter walked on a full count pitch up and in to force in the first run of the frame. That brought up Hammerin' Hank with the bases loaded, and after taking two balls leading off the at-bat (then fouling the third pitch) he hammered a fastball up-and-in (it was supposed to be down and in) off the façade between the upper and lower decks of the bleachers, just to the RF side of the Astros' bullpen. Conger hammered it - he knew it was gone - and the ball traveled quite high. Conger's one-handed high finish to the swing mirrored that of his first home run.
The Astros kept the pressure on, with Jose Altuve singling through the 5.5 hole on the next pitch. He was right in assuming the Hellickson would try and re-establish his fastball. Carlos Gómez then followed with his first hit in an Astros uniform - a hard grounder down the 3B line, that hit Aaron Hill and rebounded into where the stands jut out. That put runners on second and third, but, typical Astros, neither of them scored thanks to a strikeout looking (the pitch looked off the plate away) and a strikeout swinging (changeup fading away from Tucker).
More runners in the fifth - Gattis singled leading off the frame. The hit was a line shot that clattered off the bottom of the scoreboard that Chad Pennington played the rebound on perfectly. The ball was hammered, barely got more than 25 feet off the ground, and Pennington, despite being in the vicinity, had no chance. Another single (to Rasmus, up the middle against the shift) after a fielder's choice, then a fly out put runners on the corners, but Hammerin' Hank - fresh off a 414' home run, hit this one about 410' short of that, grounding it just in front of the plate for the force.
The Astros added on in the sixth. Carlos Gómez added to his Astros legacy by taking a running fastball inside, and putting a good swing on it, singling up the middle. Carlos Correa followed by hammering a high fastball on the outer edge, and driving it to deep RF, about three rows back for his second home run of the night. The pitch was meant to be down and away, but Josh Collmenter - who did a sterling job in long relief to save his bullpen - missed a little up, and Correa put his flat and hard swing on it, with no hint of trying to pull the ball. He extended through it well, and the ball just got out for the fourth home run of the night, and Correa's second (and third of the last two days).
Hank Conger singled leading off the eighth, and went to second on a wild pitch. With one out, he tried to score on Carlos Gómez's third hit of the night, but he got his cleats caught in the clay just short of the plate, and the resulting leg bounce gave Oscar Hernández time to tag him - thanks to a perfect throw from Inciarte. That was the only thing that Hammerin' Hank didn't do well on the night, at it cost Gómez his first RBI as an Astro.
Conger (3-4) and Correa (2-5) were clearly the offensive stories of the night, with both mashing two home runs - Conger's second was the first Grand Slam of the season for the 'stros. Carlos Gómez also had three hits (3-5), while Evan Gattis was on base three times (2-4, BB, 2B). Colby Rasmus went 2-3, and was hit by a pitch. Also getting on base was Chris Carter (0-3, BB), Jed Lowrie (1-4) and Jose Altuve (1-5).
Hammerin' Hank. When A.J. Hinch wrote his name on the lineup card, that was the end of the night for the Diamondbacks.
Man of the Match:
Carlos Correa and Hank Conger get half of the award each. Correa can have the lower left and upper right quadrants, and Conger can have the lower right and upper left pieces. Not sure why we would do it that way, but that is how we roll.
Goat of the Game:
No goat tonight, but if we were to have one, Preston Tucker (0-4) may be that guy.
This may be a tough matchup for the Astros:
Robbie Ray (3-5, 2.70) versus Collin McHugh (12-5, 4.43)
Pray for a sharp breaking ball, everyone.
Day Game... 2 Eastern, 1 Central.
Afterward, the Astros will roll up the road to Arlington for a three game series with the Rangers. The Dallas team lead the season series 5-4. The Astros need some revenge, but seven of the remaining ten games are in Arlington, so they will have to earn it.