Dallas Keuchel (13-5, 2.35) versus Sonny Gray (11-4, 2.12)
Those of you that are cricket fans - or at least knowledgable in the game - may be aware of some of the common cricket superstitions. One, in particular, revolves around the Nelson, or a team score of 111, which resembles three stumps (or wickets) without their bails on (meaning the batsman would be out). Anywho, the important thing is that 111 is unlucky in cricket. The counter-superstition is that every member of the batting team - usually sitting in the pavilion (like the dugout, but more comfortable) has to have only one foot on the ground as long as the score remains on 111. Umpires will sometimes do this as well.
So it comes as no surprise to me that the Astros were the victims of some poor luck today, given they were sitting on the Nelson. Keuchel and Gray was a marquee pitching matchup - btw, Sonny Gray has some serious throwing abilities - and the Astros were victims of some poor luck. The A's - who played their 111th game last night - were the beneficiaries of that luck. Both starters allowed one no-luck run to score on a solo home run, but the other two runs in the game (debited against Kuechel) had some portion of them attributable directly to luck.
Take nothing away from the A's however. Sonny Gray is awesome, and I thought that the A's attacked Keuchel with a solid game plan of swinging early in the count at fastballs. But the Astros were repeatedly unable to come up with big defensive and offensive plays, and as a result, they lost by a score of 3-1.
On the Mound
Dallas Keuchel found himself consistently in trouble in the first two innings of the game. Much of the trouble was attributable to the BABIP malaise that has been so infectious in the pitching staff lately. Balls were hit to spots that were tough to make plays on, or ricochet's were unkind, and as a result, baserunners were frequent in the first five frames.
The game started badly. Billy Burns reached leading off the first on an infield single that bounced off the legs of Dallas Keuchel. Altuve tried to make a barehanded play, but couldn't. Keuchel got the next two outs on a line-out and a fielder's choice back to the mound, but Danny Valencia started his night of domination of Keuchel by working a five-pitch walk. Country Breakfast (aka Billy Butler) grounded to third for the last out - a hot shot that Lowrie made a solid play on.
In the second, the BABIP nightmare intensified. Josh Phegley led off by steering a fastball away against the shift, into RF, and just wide of the first baseman. A nice piece of hitting. Then Marcus Semien grounded one up the middle that narrowly eluded the dive of Jose Altuve two pitches later - a double-play ball if it was a few feet either side. Mark Canha followed by recording the third straight single of the inning - this one was off the glove of a leaping Keuchel - again, a double-play ball if he corrals it - but Canha reached to load the bases with no outs. Lefty Sam Fuld struck out swinging on a 2-1 slider down-and-away before Billy Burns hit a fly ball the other way that Rasmus caught with his momentum going away from the infield (mostly because he was positioned quite shallow), and no play at the plate was possible. With one out, Coco Crisp walked after a dubious 2-2 check swing call from the first base ump, then Brett Lawrie grounded back to the mound to end the frame, leaving the bases loaded for the second time in the inning.
There was no luck about the run that scored in the third. Danny Valencia was leading off, and he ran the count to 2-2. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Keuchel had thrown a inside fastball that ran away from the righty back over the edge of the plate. He went back to the well again on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, and Valencia hammered it to the power alley in LF-CF for a long home run. The ball cleared the the wall mid-way between the 362 singe in left, and the 388 sign in CF.
The only other remarkable play in the inning was a two out throwing error by Jose Altuve. With one out, catcher Josh Phegley grounded a hard shot up the middle, and the ball glanced off Keuchel's legs, bouncing toward the right side a little. Altuve adjusted, fielded cleanly, but his throw was a little wide, and it pulled Valbuena off the bag. Marcus Semien GIDP three pitches later to end the inning.
Billy Burns singled to RF in the fourth with two outs (just inside the 1B bag), but the other three hitters in the inning grounded out, so he didn't score. In the fifth, Brett Lawrie led off by being hit by a pitch - the pitch was up and in, and Lawrie was diving over the plate. The ball must of flicked his arm or hand or something, but he took first. The next batter was Danny Valencia, and he singled to RF, through a yawning gap on the right side (as Valbuena was holding Lawrie on). Then Billy Butler GIDP, sending Lawrie to third base. With a 1-0 count, Josh Phegley then sliced a ball down the RF line, and woodencha-know-it, the ball landed just fair, and kicked on into the stands for a ground-rule double. Phegley thought he had sliced it foul judging by his reaction in the batters box, but the ball was fair by inches - not quite kicking up chalk and landing literally just inside the RF line. Nice hitting if you are an A's supporter - on another day that one is caught, or heads foul for a long strike. Except at Fenway, where is it a home run. RF Colby Rasmus extracted his revenge when he gunned Phegley down at home plate when he tried to score on Semien's single - it was a terrible send, a great throw, and it arrived in plenty of time.
Keuchel settled down, recording a relatively quick sixth inning, a very quick seventh, and a speedy first two outs of the eighth inning. Keuchel was eventually pulled from the game with two outs in the eighth, after Marcus Semien singled to left. Asher Wojciechowski recorded the easiest major-league out of his career when Mark Canha flew out on the first pitch to shallow left.
Keuchel bounced back very well after the the baserunner-a-rama in the first two innings - he was sitting just under 50 pitches when Coco Crisp walked with two outs in the second, after a blown call on a check swing from the umps the pitch before. He gave up two more runs, but pitched the next six innings in around 60 pitches. That gave the 'pen a bit of a break, which they definitely needed after a brutal Texas series, and an extra-inning affair last night.
At the Plate
This won't take long - or perhaps it should take longer than one would expect for a one-run offensive effort. As I mentioned above, Gray has a fabulous arm, and he deserves credit for how he pitched in this game. But the Astros hitters hit quite a few balls on the nose, but right at fielders. Gray certainly had enough to keep them just missing fly-balls, but particularly later in the game, the fielders were in perfect spots to make plays on hot shots. Perhaps another day, the Astros score enough to draw level or take a lead.
Anyhow, Gray was dominant early. He set the side down in order in the first, with Correa hitting a fly ball to medium right as the hardest hit ball in that frame. In the second, Gray struck out the first two Astros in another perfect frame. Rasmus' K involved the ball getting away from the catcher Phegley, but the rebound off the advertising hoarding behind home play was very kind to the home team, and Rasmus was unable to take first. In the third, Luis Valbuena continued his recent hot streak by singling with one out, and Jose Altuve singled with two outs to put runners on first and second. Carlos Gómez popped up on the first pitch, and the left fielder made a comfortable play.
The Astros went down in order in the fourth. The first two hitters in the fifth also went quietly, aside from Preston Tucker, who hit a hard line-drive up the middle. The ball bounced off the meat of Gray's right calf muscle, and rebounded three or so yards toward third base. Gray was not hurt, and he showed off his agility by springing off the mound, getting to the ball, and gunning Tucker down by a half-step at first. Remember all those plays in the first two innings that the Astros couldn't make?? Gray had some luck here, but he also made a great play.
That was important, because Luis Valbeuna - the next batter - homered to deep RF. Gray - on a 3-2 count - tried to bust Valbeuna inside with a fastball. He didn't miss his spot, and the pitch was slightly elevated, and on the inside edge of the zone. Valbuena didn't miss it either, and the ball carried out over the 362 sign in right field. In Oakland, the bleachers are 30 feet or so off the ground at that point, and Valbuena's shot went 5 rows back into the elevated bleachers. Plus, it wasn't a towering fly ball - it was more of a line shot. No doubt there, mammoth home run, and impressive hitting from the corner infielder. That was his 21st of the year - the most of his career by five.
That was it for scoring for the Astros. With two outs in the sixth, Carlos Correa singled into the 5.5 hole. Semien dove, and was unable to come up with a strong enough throw to nab Correa. The Astros went in order in the seventh. In the eight, Jason Castro went up the middle on a hard grounder (slightly the other way) with one out, but on the next pitch, Jose Altuve hit a tailor made double-play ball to third, and the frame was over. In the ninth, a Carlos Gómez foul out, a Carlos Correa K (on a correctly called check-swing) and the Lowrie grounder wrapped up the ballgame for the A's.
The tale of the box score is less about who got the hits, and more about who hit the ball hard. Luis Valbeuna went 2-3 with a home run. Jason Castro went 1-3, and Altuve and Correa both went 1-4. No Astro walked, which is impressive on Gray's part. Colby Rasmus stung the ball a couple of times to RF for no result, Preston Tucker did his best to remove Gray from the game by grounding a hard shot up the middle (to no hit- or injury-related avail) and Evan Gattis hit a couple of balls hard. The A's fielders were where they needed to be.
Valbuena had homered in the top of the fifth, and brought the Astros to within one. After a Billy Butler double-play, Brett Lawrie stood at third base with two outs. Facing Phegley on a 1-0 count, Keuchel opted to try and throw a breaking ball for a strike on the outside half of the plate. Phegley stayed with the pitch, and he hit a fly ball down the RF line. The ball dropped just fair, missing the line by an inch or so, bounced into the stands in foul ground, and Lawrie scored the third run for the Athletics, increasing the Astros' deficit back to two runs. Phegley was later thrown out at the plate, but one important run still scored in the inning.
Man of the Match
Luis Valbuena seems to have shortened his swing. He still has a pronounced uppercut, but he seems to be hitting more line drives, and fewer deep fly balls. As he also proved tonight, he still has serious pull power, and he climbed above the 20HR plateau for the first time in his career.
Goat of the Game
Hard to get on anyone too much in this game. Altuve and Keuchel were both in the middle of some defensive miscues, but they were also difficult plays. Hard to win with five hits and no walks, especially when the other guys have 10 hits and 2 walks (plus a reached-on-error), but Gray is a quality pitcher. Only five strikeouts, too, so not like there are many 0-4, 3K lines (I call that one "the Marisnick"). Leave "Goat" nominations in the comments, please.
On the Morrow
The third game of a four game series pits Collin McHugh (13-5, 4.27) versus Jesse Chavez (5-11, 3.88). This is an afternoon game (4 Eastern, 3 Central). Be there or be rhomboid.