Lance McCullers, 5-4, 3.17 versus Clayton Kershaw (10-6, 2.34)
The Astros, you might have heard, made some serious statements in the first two games of this series. Specifically, they whipped out a no-no in the opening game of the series, then they tagged Zack Greinke for three extra-base hits in the second game of the series. The Dodgers scored one run in the two games, while the Astros scored three runs in each of the first two games. In the last four Astros wins, they have won by scores of 3-2, 3-2, 3-0 and 3-1. So it was fitting that they won today by a score of 3-2 on a walk off. If the Astros manage to start scoring more than three runs in a game, then look out, rest of the league, because they could be seriously dangerous.
Before we get to the game recap, it seems pertinent to look at the other AL West contenders. Texas - the new second-place team on the AL West totem pole - completed their third win in a row (and third win of the four game series) against the Tigers to stay four games back of the Astros. The Angels were up by five runs after the first inning against the Blue Jays (and with Garrett Richards on the mound, too), but by the end of the third inning the Jays had the lead. It ended up being a laugher, with the Jays running away with the win by a score of 12-5. So the suddenly-free-falling Angels lost their fourth in a row, and were swept at home by the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays happen to be the next opponent of the Rangers in Arlington, so that will represent a fair challenge to the neighbours from the north-west.
On the Mound:
McCullers' outing can't be summed up in simple terms. The guy is complex. He has - at times - command and control problems, but when he is hitting his spots, he has filthy, nasty stuff. Three wild pitches are probably evidence that he isn't an easy guy to catch, let alone hit. It will be fun watching McCullers' career develop over the next few years - if he learns how to spot the ball more consistently, then he has a serious chance of being a legitimate ace. McCullers' final line was a very solid 7IP, allowing 8 baserunners (all hits) while striking out eight. He allowed two earned runs, but it is fair to say that if he hadn't thrown any wild pitches, he may have thrown a shutout.
The first inning was a great example of that. Jimmy Rollins grounded out to first on the first pitch of the game before Chase Utley doubled to left field on a line drive just inside the line to the LF corder. Next up was Justin Turner, and Utley advanced to third base on a wild pitch (a curveball in the dirt) before scoring on a sac fly to CF for the first run of the game. Gómez nearly nailed him from medium depth in CF - I like how he got behind the ball and caught it coming in. Adrian Gonzalez flew out to left to end the frame.
The Dodgers managed two hits in the second - Andre Ethier led off with a base hit to left field, but he was out sliding into second base. Ethier grounded the ball down the third base line just fair, and the ball ricocheted off the stands where they jut out, into shallow left field. Marwin González played it perfectly off the stands and nailed off a strong throw, probably about the same distance as a shortstop to first-base throw. Jose Altuve got the tag down just in time, and Ethier was retired on the play. Just as well, because the next batter was Yasiel Puig, and he singled to LF before stealing second. But he was a spectator at second for the rest of the inning, as McCullers struck Carl Crawford out, and set down A.J. Ellis on a fly out to RF.
Kiké Hernández singled leading off the third, but he was erased two pitches later on a sweet 6-unassisted-3 double play. McCullers allowed a two-out single in the fourth inning (a soft line drive to CF), but that was all for that frame. He entered the fifth with a narrow 1-0 deficit.
After striking out Carl Crawford to open the fifth inning, A.J. Ellis doubled to the base of the visitor's bullpen fence with one out. McCullers then struck out Kiké Hernández on four pitches, but Ellis advanced twice during Rollins' two-out at-bat, both times on wild pitches. The second wild pitch bounded off Castros' arm into the Dodgers dugout, so Ellis would have scored whatever. That increased the deficit for the Astros to 2-0.
McCullers retired the side in order in the sixth, including a two-out strikeout of Adrian Gonzalez. In the seventh inning, he was in a bit of trouble again - Andre Ethier singled to RF, then Yasiel Puig singled to CF, sending Ethier to second base. After a Carl Crawford strikeout, McCullers struck A.J. Ellis out on a peach of a curveball away, and Castro had time to stand up and punch a throw to third base to nail Andre Ethier, who was trying to advance. The tag was in plenty of time, and McCullers was out of the frame. That also ended his night at 94 pitches - a solid effort, and a pat on the back for Doug Brocail.
I know I often gloss over how the 'pen pitched, but that is because they are so very good - leading the AL in ERA (2.63) and the Bigs in OPS (.594) - thanks Christina Kharl. Chad Qualls struck out two in a scoreless eighth, Tony Sipp allowed a hit and a walk while retiring only one batter, but he was bailed out by Vincent Velasquez, who struck out Yasiel Puig and retired Carl Crawford on a line drive to CF. Luke Gregerson allowed a lead off single, but he was sacrificed to second and was grounded to third. Gregerson got Utley to ground into a routine play to an overshifted shortstop to end the frame.
At the Plate:
Jose Altuve has frustrated a few good pitchers in his time, and tonight it was the turn of Clayton Kershaw. Altuve led off the Astros' half of the first with a single into LF - a hard grounder through the 5.5 hole - but the rest of the side went on a fly-out, a fielder's choice (Altuve out at second) and a strike out. The Astros went in order in the second inning before Jose Altuve recorded the second Astros hit of the game with an infield single to shortstop with two outs in the third - very similar to his base hit in the first. But Altuve was also one of two Astros baserunners thrown out on the base paths - he was promptly picked off by Clayton Kershaw in clinical fashion. In the fourth, the Astros went in order, and a Chris Carter two-out double into the LF corner was the most significant play of the fifth. Carter took a fastball that missed arm-side and up, and he turned on it, pulling it just fair to the base of the out-of-town scoreboard on the full. Handsome Jake grounded back to the mound to end the fifth inning.
The Astros entered the sixth inning with a 2-0 deficit, and they managed to (i) cut it in half and (ii) have another runner thrown out on the bases. Jose Altuve, with one out, showed great plate coverage when he went down and away to hit a line drive on a fastball located off the plate. The line drive was snagged on the bounce by Yasiel Puig at the edge of the warning track, and he has a cannon, but not enough of one to get Altuve at second. Carlos Gómez then hit a soft single to the left side, just out of the reach of Jimmy Rollins to send Altuve to third. Gómez was jammed on a fastball up and in, but he hung in there, and got enough on it to record the hit on a soft line drive.
That put runners on the corners with one out, and when Carlos Correa grounded back to the mound, it looked like a double-play was the most likely outcome. But Clayton Kershaw generates a lot of torque when he pitches, and his trail leg (his left) had landed on the third-base side of the mound, so his back was semi-turned toward the plate. When he went to field the ball, he put his glove behind his trail foot, and the ball caromed off his heel, toward third base, before even reaching his glove. It was a rotten piece of luck, but Altuve still may have scored regardless, but Correa reached and Gómez advanced to second.
Kershaw bounced back to get Jed Lowrie on a fly out to RF, and Gómez advanced to third, again challenging Puig's cannon - wwho threw the ball to third on the fly, and Gómez was safe in a nick of time. That set up perhaps the play of the game - Kershaw is a lefty who is a little slow to the plate at times, and Gómez tried to steal home on a 2-1 count. Kershaw did well to step off the rubber in a nick of time, and he lobbed a throw to Ellis, who came forward to get it, and reached back for the tag. Ellis probably tagged a headfirst sliding Gómez on the chin before he touched the plate, and that was the ruling from the HP ump. As Gómez slid through the bag, his left foot clipped Ellis on the jaw, rotating his head a little, and injuring him. Ellis was lucky not to have been knocked out cold - loss of consciousness in sport is most often associated with a rotation of the brainstem, and being hit on the jaw like that is a great way to cause that rotation. He was ruled to have made the play, and after the injury delay, he returned to the game to catch the next inning. That ended the inning for the Astros.
Evan Gattis was at the plate on Gómez's caught stealing (or TOOTBLAN, however you want to put it), and he doubled to start the seventh. But he was a spectator at second base as González, Carter and Marisnick all went down swinging. I was watching carefully on GameDay at that time, and I thought that Carter and Marisnick were hosed on a couple of pitches off the plate inside - Carter on a 3-0 count, and Marisnick on a 1-1 count. However, BrooksBaseball.net does not agree, calling both pitches on the edge of the callable zone. Anyhow, after Gattis' double, the side went in order in the seventh, and in the eighth Kershaw finally managed to retire Jose Altuve while facing the minimum.
So Kershaw handed the ball directly to closer Kenley Jansen with a 2-1 lead. Carlos Correa led off with a single on a hard grounder to the right side on a fastball up and away, then Luis Valbuena struck out swinging. Carlos Correa easily stole second - which was vital in the final shakedown, before Evan Gattis popped out for the second out of the frame. That brought left fielder Marwin González to the plate - he had been 0-3, 3K to that point - and he was obviously sick of striking out because he jumped on the first pitch he saw. It was a fastball that was meant to be down-and-in, but it leaked back out over the plate, and González lined it into RF. The ball landed just on the grass where the RF stand juts out, about five yards short of the warning track, and that meant that Correa could cruise home. González stopped at first, and the game was tied.
Chris Hatcher, who has been up every game in this series, got the assignment to pitch the tenth. He opened well, striking out Handsome Jake after missing the strike zone with his first two pitches. Hatcher also started Jason Castro off with two balls, but when he came into the strike zone, Castro was ready. The pitch was a fastball that was meant to be down-and-away, but it leaked back over the plate and Castro put a good swing on it. The ball flew to LF, and just snuck into the first row of the Crawford Boxes for a walk off home run. The Dodgers reviewed, but to no avail, and the call was upheld.
That represented the fourth walk-off of the homestand - including the second walk-off home run - so the Astros maintained the gap over the Rangers at 4 games.
Looking at the box score, Jose Altuve was the standout performer, with a 3-4, 2B night. He blotted his copybook somewhat when he was picked off. Carlos Correa went 2-4 with two singles and a stolen base, and he drove in the first run of the game, and scored the tying run of the game. Gómez, Gattis (2B), González and Castro (HR) all went 1-4, and Chris Carter went 1-3 with a double.
Marwin González pounced on Kenley Jansen's first pitch, which was a cut fastball that backed up a little, and leaked arm-side and over the plate. González put a good swing on it, and the ball wasn't in the air for too long, so Van Slyke had no chance to run it down. Carlos Correa, with two outs, was off and running on the crack of the bat, and he scored the tying run without a throw. That took the Astros into extras, and we know how things finished half-an-hour later.
Man of the Match:
Jason Castro gets the nod for a tough night behind the dish and at the dish. Catching Lance McCullers is no fun, especially when he brings his wicked breaking ball to the party. But Castro hung in there, nailed a base runner, and hit the walk off home run to the opposite field to ice the game.
Goat of the Game:
No need for a goat. Not on a sweep day.
On the Morrow:
The Astros open a three-game set on the road against the Yankees, who now sit second in the AL East with a 68-55 record (the Astros sit at 69-56).
Scott Feldman (5-5, 4.05) versus Nathan Eovaldi (13-2, 4.24)
7 Eastern, 6 Central.