Zack Greinke (13-2, 1.58) versus Scott Kazmir (6-8, 2.43)
A banner night for the Astrso last night continued into the pre-game celebration today, when Craig Biggio was honoured in a Hall of Fame pre-game ceremony. Jason Castro was an interested observer - if he continues developing his defensive skills, he could make it into the lesser-known catcher-only Hall of Frame. Zing! Anyhow, Craig Biggio was all class during the ceremony, but when he was in the broadcast booth, he confessed that he left Mike Fiers' start to head out for dinner in the fourth inning last night. Jeff Luhnow, at that time, apparently warned him that he could miss a no-hitter, but Biggio left regardless, and as a result, Mike Fiers had to pitch with one less supporter in the stands.
The Astros sealed the series tonight with a 3-1 win, with all three runs scoring of Zack Greinke. Interesting happenings under Houston on the AL West totem pole - the Rangers are now the second placed team after they avoided a late-inning meltdown against the Tigers. The Angels were pounded by a solid Toronto lineup. The Rangers and Angels are 4.0 and 4.5 games behind the Astros respectively, and I think both teams have considerable collapse potential. At this point, the Blue Jays and Rangers hold the wild card spots, but the season still has 38 games left to play (for the Astros, at least).
On the Mound:
Scott Kazmir was dominant early before struggling in the fifth and sixth innings. However, the overall performance was excellent, with only one earned run scored mostly because Kazmir was able to negotiate his way around a number of Dodgers baserunners in the middle innings. Kazmir's overall line was significant for six innings pitched, seven baserunners (six hits and one walk) against eight strikeouts. He threw 98 pitches in the process.
As I said earlier, Kazmir was excellent early in the game. He retired the side in order in the first on a fly-out, line-out, fly-out sequence. In the second, he sandwiched a hard fly out to the base of Tal's Hill around two strikeouts (of Gonzalez and Utley). In the third, the struck out the first two batters (Kiké Hernández and Yasmani Grandal) before getting Alex Guerrero on a grounder to third base.
The first Dodgers baserunners reached in the fourth - the second time through the order. Jimmy Rollins led off with a soft single into the LF-CF power alley, but Colby Rasmus pounced on it, and got the throw off quickly. The throw was a little off target, but Jose Altuve had time to glove it, and get back to the second base bag in time to nail Rollins on a slide. The Dodgers requested a review of the decision, but to no avail because the call stood.
The next batter was Yasiel Puig, and he hit a hard knuckler to Carlos Correa, who couldn't come up with the ball, deflecting it a couple of yards away to his right. But Puig was left stranded at first, because Justin Turner struck out on a similar pitch to the one that ended the game last night, and Adrian Gonzalez grounded out to end the frame.
Kazmir was in trouble for much of the rest of his outing, but he worked his way around five baserunners over the next two innings to allow a solitary run. After Scott Van Slyke struck out leading off the fifth, Chase Utley nailed a low fly ball into the RF corner. The ball bounced on the warning track and hit the base of the foul pole, just above the yellow line, and ricocheted back into RF. Utley gunned for third and pulled up with a triple, but the Astros requested a review, and Utley had to head back to second on the ground-rule double. That ended up being important, because Kiké Hernández drove the sixth pitch of his at bat deep enough to allow Utley to tag and advance, and he would have scored easily if he had been on third. With two outs, Grandal walked, but Alex Guerrero struck out on a pitch down and away for the last out of the inning.
I wonder whether Kazmir would come out for the sixth, as he seemed to be getting hammered in the fifth, and his stuff looked a little more flat. I may have had someone in the 'pen warming to start the frame, perhaps, and if that was the case, Kazmir may not have gotten to finish the inning. Anyhow, the lead off hitter was Jimmy Rollins in the sixth, and this time he doubled to the LF-CF gap without getting thrown out. The pitch was an elevated 87 mph fastball away that looked flat, and the ball bounced off the fence on the visitors bullpen on the bounce. Yasiel Puig grounded him to third, then Justin Turner hit one back up the middle to score Rollins on a single. Still with one out, Adrian Gonzalez singled to RF to put runners on first and second, bringing lefty-masher Scott Van Slyke to the plate in a vital spot. Kazmir responded by throwing three straight change-ups, none of which Van Slyke was close to, so he struck out swinging. Chase Utley was unable to advance the runners further, and his ground-out to second represented the third out of the inning.
Will Harris got the seventh, and he was gold... again. He set the side down in order, including the first two batters on strikeouts on six pitches, all strikes. The seventh pitch of his outing was put in play by Carl Crawford, but it was a grounder to Jose Altuve, so the Dodgers sat down quickly. I wondered whether Harris would start the eighth, but Pat Neshek got the assignment and he was nearly as good, retiring the side in order on 13 pitches. And Luke Gregerson was awarded the save, allowing only a lead-off single and a hard-hit line-out to CF in the process. Andre Ethier struck out to end the game.
At the Plate:
If I had to pick someone in this series to have thrown a no-hitter, then I would have picked Zack Greinke most times - at least in 2015. His attempt at a no hitter lasted exactly two pitches, because Jose Altuve hit a hard line drive on his second pitch to the LF side of Tal's Hill. The ball rolled all the way to the wall, and despite Kiké Hernández's best efforts, Altuve rolled into third for his first triple of the season, and eleventh of his career. I wondered whether he would be stranded there, because Greinke quickly had Carlos Gómez in an 0-2 hole. Gómez was then retired on a hard grounder to third base that Altuve did not attempt to advance on, but the next hitter (Correa) also grounded to third base. The second grounder was slowly hit, and Justin Turner (playing third for the Dodgers) came in but was unable to make the play. He bobbled the ball, and both Altuve and Correa were safe. Correa reached on an error, but was awarded an RBI by the official scorer. Sadly, Correa was also awarded a caught stealing, which ended the frame.
The second inning was remarkable for a Luis Valbuena home run to the back wall of the Astros' bullpen. Valbeuna had worked himself into a 3-2 count, and on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, be pushed all his chips into the middle, and sold out on fastball. The Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal called for a fastball down and away, Greinke missed glove-side-and-up, and Valbuena hammered a no-doubt shot that was estimated to have travelled around 410 feet. That increased the Astros' lead to two.
Greinke was pretty much nails after that, because he set down the next eleven in order, two on strikeouts. However, with one out in the sixth, Jose Altuve was also sitting fastball in a 2-1 count. Grandal again wanted the pitch down and in (in a similar spot to Valbeuna's home run, remembering that Altuve bats right and Valbuena bats left), and again the ball leaked glove-side-and-up. That put the ball squarely in the inner or middle third, and Altuve turned on it, mashing a hard line drive halfway back into the Crawford Boxes. That restored the cushion to two runs (the Dodgers had scored one in the top half of the frame), and gave Jose Altuve double-digit home runs for the season. He became the ninth Astro to do so this season.
Greinke resumed cutting through the Astro lineup like a hot knife through butter. He set down the next five, not looking troubled in the process. His last two batters were Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis, and he struck them both out. If he opts out of his contract, Greinke is going to get seriously paid this offseason. J.P. Howell retired the Astros in order in the eighth.
The Astros had four baserunners on three hits and an error... and scored three runs! Jose Altuve went 2-3 with a triple and a home run, and Valbuena went 1-3 with a home run. The only other baserunner was Carlos Correa, who reached in the first and was caught stealing.
Scott Kazmir looked great early on, and he was staked to an early 2-0 lead. He had two vital strikeouts in the midst of his struggles. In the bottom of the fifth, he got Alex Gurrero to swing at ball four - something sinking down and away to the righty. His strikeout of Scott Van Slyke - three consecutive change-ups - went half way toward stranding runners at first and second in a one-run game. Van Slyke was the second out of the sixth.
Man of the Match:
Yesterday, I wondered whether Marwin González may get some starts at second base because Altuve has been... um... "not sharp". Thank goodness that I am in my parents' basement writing for a little-read blog and not running the Astros. Jose Altuve had a great outing against a tough righty, and therefore wins the MoTM.
Goat of the Game:
Colby Rasmus has been one of the better Astros hitters recently. Not tonight. 0-3, 3K.
Batman Returns (Lance McCullers, 5-4, 3.17) versus Clayton Kershaw (10-6, 2.34)
Lets see what Doug Brocail taught McCullers during his vacation in Corpus.
2 Eastern, 1 Central. Grab a broom, everyone.