Dallas Keuchel versus Edinson Volquez
Just before the eyes of the baseball world became occupied with a slide (and moreso the subsequent penalty for the slide), the Astros were facing off against the Royals in Game 3 in Houston. This was an important game for both clubs - the Astros needed to win with Keuchel on the bump at home, where he has been so very, very good; while the Royals could have gone a long way toward winning the series after starting a little slowly in Game 1, and for much of Game 2. So this game took on some importance - like most playoff games really - and could well be remembered as a pivotal post-season game once the series is done.
And because the Astros won 4-2, they get the opportunity to try and close the series tomorrow. In a mouth-watering matchup, the Astros send Lance McCullers to the mound, while the Royals oppose with their Game 1 starter - and form pitcher of the second half - Yordano Ventura. This won't be the worst matchup in the world for McCullers - the Royals don't walk much, so perhaps with his stuff, he could potentially get away with being a little wild. Much will depend on the Royals' ability to spoil pitches, and McCullers' ability to control his breaking ball. It will be interesting.
But, Astros fans, lets not get ahead of ourselves. I have a game to recap that I am sure that many of you have already watched. Using our slightly different format again...
Keuchel faced a tough matchup against a KC side that touched him up a little in Kansas City in June. The Royals are a good contact-hitting team, and Keuchel works off the corners a bit, so I thought that it would be possible that a lot of good pitches would be spoiled. Kuechel started a little slowly - he allowed an infield single leading off the game (Alcides Escobar was eventually stranded at second) and a leadoff single to Kendrys Morales in the second. However, in both innings, he got the next three outs - on a strikeout and two grounders in the first, and on two strikeouts and grounders in the second. Escobar's leadoff single is worthy of some comment - Correa made a great play going to his left deep in the hole but his jump-throw was just a little low, and Carter - who isn't the best fielding first baseman in the world - couldn't handle the short-hop. Correa would have gotten his man if the ball had been scooped, and that would have been a stunning play.
Meanwhile, the Astros hitters were a little slow out of the gate, too. They went in order in the first, and only a Rasmus lead-off walk stopped them from going in order in the second. Rasmus was quickly erased on a fielder's choice, but Gattis (who grounded to third and replaced him on the bases) could not advance off first. Both pitchers faced the minimum in the third - Kuechel because he retired the side on two groundouts and a line-out on 9 pitches, and Volquez because Chris Carter was tagged out stretching at second. Carter slowed up rounding first base, plus he picked out the multiple gold-glove winner in LF, plus the ball took a friendly-ish carom off the scoreboard, plus Carter can't slide to save himself. The next two Astros struck out.
The first run of the game was scored by the Royals in the fourth. Lorenzo Cain was leading off, and he and Keuchel engaged in a classic matchup that lasted 10 pitches. Cain fouled off five consecutive pitches before Kuechel tried to throw a 2-2 backfoot slider that didn't break. The target was down and in, Kuechel missed a few inches arm-side-and-up, and Cain hammered a fat pitch onto the railway tracks. It was impressive, and measured at 419 feet - a classic at-bat really - and the Astros trailed 1-0 early.
The trouble for Kuechel in the fourth didn't end there, either. After Keuchel struck out Eric Hosmer - who was convinced that he had worked a walk the pitch before - Kendrys Morales walked when Luis Valbuena missed a hard-hit grounder at third. It was scored an error, which seemed fair. Morales then advanced on a wild pitch, then advanced again on a groundout to third base. With two outs, Sal Pérez walked on a full-count breaking pitch, but the next batter was Alex Gordon, and he hit a gentle fly to short LF for the third out.
Keuchel worked around RISP again in the fifth. Ben Zobrist doubled off the base of the out-of-town scoreboard with two outs, and the Astros elected to walk Lorenzo Cain to get to Eric Hosmer. The strategy paid off when a visibly frustrated Hosmer struck out swinging at a slider away on a 2-2 count to end the frame.
The Astros' response in the fourth was via a two-out walk to Colby Rasmus. Evan Gattis struck out swinging on three pitches (breaking ball away) to strand him there. The Astros responded a little more effectively in the fifth when Luis Valbuena walked on five pitches, followed by a Chris Carter hard-hit double into the LF corner. Carter turned on a low pitch inside, hitting it hard down the line, just fair. The ball rattled around in the corner, but Valbuena wisely stopped at third, and Carter made second safely (the trick is not sliding). Jason Castro picked the Astros up with his first career postseason hit - a hard grounder up the middle, with the second baseman shaded a little toward first base - scoring both Carter and Valbuena. The pitch was a sinking fastball down and away, Castro got good wood on it, and the Astros took a 2-1 lead. A Jose Altuve 6-4-3 double-play ended the inning, which surprised me because I thought Jason Castro was meant to barrel through the second base bag and attempt to injure the pivoting infielder, not politely get out of the way halfway toward second. Perhaps I have been watching too much of Rougned Odor and Chase Utley baserunning.
From there, Keuchel kept working the Royals, pitching in and out of jams. Mike Moustakas touched him up for a double with one out in the sixth - a mirror image of Chris Carter's double in the fifth - but the Moose was stranded at third when (after he advanced on a fly-out for the second out) Alex Gordon struck out swinging on a full count. That pitch was a sinker down-and-in, and Gordon swung over the top of it. In the seventh, Alex Rios walked, and was grounded over to second and third when the next two outs were recorded. That set up a showdown with Lorenzo Cain and a runner at third base, and Keuchel won out with a full-count fastball that ran away and down off the outside corner. Cain flailed at it, missed, and ended the inning with a strikeout. Keuchel's night was also over at 124 pitches, and a whole lot of clutch strikeouts.
Meanwhile, the Astros added a couple of runs to extend the lead. George Springer led off the sixth with a double to CF. Lorenzo Cain was ranging over to make the catch in front of the visitors' bullpen, and he tried to glove the ball on the run. However, the ball hit a little in the heel of his glove, then rebounded toward the end of the glove. Cain spilled it out of the end as he was a little slow to close his glove before he went into a slide. The end result was that George Springer reached second on a lead-off double. Springer was grounded to third by Carlos Correa, then Colby Rasmus was intentionally walked. Evan Gattis struck out with the runners on the corners (a changeup down-and-away) for the second out before Carlos Gómez singled on a low-and-inside fastball into CF, scoring Springer for the Astros' third run.
The Astros needed no such drama for their fourth run. Chris Carter did what Chris Carter does when he is playing well - make the non-fielding, non-sliding parts of the game look ridiculously easily. Specifically on this occasion, he was facing lefty reliever Danny Duffy who tried to bust him inside. The ball ran a little over the plate - not much judging by Pérez's moving glove - and Carter turned on it, hammering it over the railway tracks in the LF power alley. The dude has some serious pop, and he raked today, with three hits in three at-bats.
Tony Sipp got the eighth inning for the Astros, and he managed two strikeouts sandwiched around a walk to Kendrys Morales. Both strikeouts were on breaking pitches. With two outs, and a runner on first, Hinch elected to go with Luke Gregerson for a four-out save, and that strategy worked in the eighth inning, as Gregerson enticed Sal Pérez into an easy grounder to third.
The Astros managed two baserunners in the eighth - both singles, and one from Colby Rasmus off the roof of MMP, but neither baserunner scored. Gregerson came out for the ninth, and on the second pitch of the inning, Alex Gordon homered the other way. The pitch was an elevated sinker away, and Gordon did not look like he hit it that well, but the ball carried to the concourse, right over the middle of the visitor's bullpen. It hit the wall just above the arch for a clear no-doubt shot. That closed the gap to 4-2 in favour of the Astros.
The next ball was hit nearly as hard. Alex Rios lined one into deep CF, to the left side of the Inspirity sign to the right of the visitors' bullpen. Carlos Gómez made a nice running catch for the out, a step or two short of the wall. Gregerson should not be recording outs in the air, I think, so perhaps he wasn't as sharp in this game as he has been recently. With one out, Alcides Escobar singled to CF - a bloop shot off the end of the bat. But he was erased when Ben Zobrist grounded to short, then Lorenzo Cain struck out on an elevated slider for the last out. The final pitch looked kind of fat, but Cain was out in front of it, and the Astros had won a crucial swing game at home.
In the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, Kuechel faced All-Star hitters with runners in scoring position. In the fifth, Keuchel struck out Eric Hosmer swinging on a 2-2 breaking pitch out of the zone with Ben Zobrist at first. In the sixth, Mike Moustakas was on third when Keuchel struck out Alex Gordon on a full-count sinker down-and-in. In the seventh, Lorenzo Cain went down on strikes with Alex Rios at third base on a full count fastball running away. Keuchel wasn't great in terms of his stuff in this game, but his box-score sure looked great - 7 innings, 5 hits, 1R/ER, 3 walks (one intentional) and seven strikeouts.
Man of the Match:
The Battery was pretty big tonight. Keuchel pitched well, Castro received well, and Castro added a vital, clutch hit. In the post-game interviews, Castro and Keuchel had a game of "deflect the praise", with both crediting the other for the success over the seven innings that Keuchel pitched. Whomever you want to credit, they had a solid game plan, and seemed to pick the correct pitches to throw when they were in a jam.
Chris Carter was pretty awesome, too. 3-3, and a triple short of the cycle. The Constable would say that is like a girl short of a threesome, but I still think that a 3-3 night is pretty cool. Carter may DH tomorrow.
Goat of the Game:
The Roof of MMP robbed Colby Rasmus of chance at a seventh straight postseason game with a extra base hit. Stupid roof. That ball may have gotten out too. I am really glad that it wasn't important in the context of the game, but it does seem like a pity that Rasmus' streak ends on a ball he hit too high. It had a chance to get out down the RF line, I thought.
On the Morrow:
Lance McCullers versus Yordano Ventura in the battle of the fireballers. The Astros are one hot pitching performance and/or one hot hitting performance from advancing to the Championship Series.
1 Eastern, Noon Central, 6am NZST.