Thursday, October 15, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk: ALDS Game 5 - Astros in Kansas City

Collin McHugh versus Johnny Cueto

I will spare the suspense, AC readers, and come right out and tell you that the Astros lost 7-2 to the Royals, ending their season, and sending them to a winter of golf.  This season has been a blast, but the Astros wound up losing 3 games in a 5 game series because they were unable to hold multiple-run leads three times.  Today, the lead that they held was only two runs (and it was pretty early in the game), but even the most philosophical of Astros supporters would admit that they should not have been in Kansas City in the first place.  Their inability to hold a four-run lead late at home on Monday, after their inability to hold a three run lead in the middle innings on the road in Friday doomed them.  As did three critical innings in each of the games - the sixth inning during Game 2, the eighth inning in Game 4 and the fifth inning tonight.  The BABIP monster bit the Astros in each of those innings (alternatively, the Royals ground out quality at-bats) and perhaps the Astros could be considered a little unlucky.  But the final mashup means that a trip home is in order, and the battered bullpen and all-or-nothing offence probably feel like one had, perhaps, gotten away.

Anyhow, the summer has been all sorts of fun, and it has been a pleasure bringing you some/most of the games here at Astros County.  I will miss Robert Ford and Steve Sparks most of all - I usually spend a couple of afternoons a week with them in my office while I am pounding out paperwork.  Sadly, today, I missed the last inning because a Red Sock fan was wanting to chat about work (his season was over, after all) which is a pity because I really wanted to bid a (hopefully temporary) farewell to the radio guys and listen to the last breaths of the Astros' 2015 season in peace.

I would also be remiss in not mentioning the other ALDS game that was on today.  The Astros game was the saddest of the day for me, but not nearly the most exciting or controversial.  I am glad the Astros were well-beaten today, and not eliminated in controversial circumstances similar to how the Rangers went down (although it could have been Toronto exiting at one stage).  Firstly, the Arlington team was chipping at the Jays the entire series, and the Jays weren't exactly backing down from the confrontation.  Then, Arlington took a lead on an unbelievable play in the top of the seventh - which I still can't believe would be allowed to occur in the rulebook.  All of that merely set the stage for the the bottom of the seventh, when the Karma Bus arrived, and drove through the Rangers' dugout, mowing down players left, right, and centre.  Then the Karma Bus stopped, located Elvis Andrus' near-lifeless body, and backed over it three times just for good measure.  The Jays ran out eventual winners, the Little Engine That Could and its 130-odd million dollar payroll is also heading home for the winter, and hopefully, Rougned Odor won't be allowed to slide like this in 2016.

On to the recap, for the last time until April 2016...

Nothing happened for either team in the first inning, so let's skip to the second.  Colby Rasmus struck out to open the top of the second for the Astros, then Carlos Gómez flew out to LF.  Some words were exchanged between Gómez and pitcher Cueto on Gómez's way back to the dugout - I didn't see anything too obvious to gripe about, so perhaps they were swapping some muffin recipes.  Then Evan Gattis reached on an error infield single - he hit a hard ground-ball to third base, and the Moose's throw pulled Eric Hosmer off the bag into foul territory.  Hosmer tried to tag Gattis as he ran past - and I think he must have, because the ball bounded out of Hosmer's glove, nullifying any tag that was made.  Gattis was credited with an infield single, and that single turned into a two-run lead on the next pitch when Luis Valbuena ambushed Johnny Cueto on a fastball down-and-in, hammering it to RF for a two-run shot.  An un-concussed Sal Pérez called for a pitch on the outer-half, Cueto pulled it inside a little, and Valbuena turned on it.  It was measured at 394 feet - getting out by plenty, even in a large stadium.  The Astros led, 2-0, but they had also had their last baserunner for the night.  Ouch.

So the Astros needed to hold a two-run lead for the next eight innings.  No worries, right??  McHugh retired the side in the bottom of the second rather quickly - on seven pitches to be exact - but it later became obvious that the Royals were merely saving their BABIP luck for later.

For convenience, let's head to the bottom of the fourth.  The inning started normally, when Ben Zobrist struck out swinging on a 2-2 curveball located down - it was a great pitch.  Then Lorenzo Cain singled to RF on a check-swing single - the hit was a soft line-drive over the first baseman.  The next batter was Eric Hosmer, and he singled on a full count up the middle.  The single was on another soft line drive to CF on a 3-2 pitch - Ned Yost was sending the runner Cain to stay out of the double-play, so he was pretty much at second base when the ball dropped.  Cain motored for third, and when Gómez fell on his butt due to a lack of heel traction (Gómez slowed up approaching the ball), Cain kept going.  He scored without a throw, and McHugh had managed to give up a run on two consecutive singles.  No error was recorded on the play, which I find kind of odd.

The Royals only managed one in the fourth, because the next two Royals hitters went down in order - although the Moose's pop out looked like it would drop into a Bermuda Triangle just behind a conventional short-stop position (the shift was on).  Colby Rasmus eventually made the play, dashing in from left to glove it cleanly.

The Royals took the lead in the fifth.  Sal Pérez led off being hit by a pitch - it was a loopy curveball inside that Pérez declined to move on, and it caught a glancing blow off his arm for a fairly soft HBP. However, it was also a full-count, and McHugh missed badly with the 3-2 offering, so if he hadn't been hit, he would have reached on balls regardless.  Alex Gordon followed with a ground-rule double - Castro was set-up outside, McHugh missed a little glove-side with a full-count fastball, and Gordon drove it just out of the reach of George Springer.  The ball bounced on the warning track then over the fence in the RF power alley for a ground rule double.  That put two runners in scoring position with no outs, and A.J. Hinch brought his hook out of the dugout.  Mike Fiers relieved.

Fiers worked Alex Rios to a 1-1 count, getting Rios to hit a slow grounder to third.  But, in a microcosm of the Astros' night, the ball was just fair, and Valbuena was playing too far off the line to make the play.  It could have been an out, but instead it was a two-run double into LF.  Alcides Escobar followed with a sac-bunt, moving Rios to third, and Ben Zobrist, who is gonna get paid this winter - followed with a sac-fly to medium RF, scoring the fourth run of the night for the Royals.

The Astros could have had multiple baserunners in the next few innings, but the Royals' defence was too tight.  Jason Castro nearly dumped one into CF, but it was snared by Escobar (after he got a poor break on the ball).  Alex Gordon made a wonderful sliding grab in foul ground in LF to retire Altuve in the sixth.  Carlos Correa had a soft line drive snared by Ben Zobrist, who was playing deep at second base in the seventh.  Cueto also did his bit, and he retired the side on five pitches in the eighth.  At this point, he had retired 19 in a row, making mincemeat of the Astros' offence after the Valbuena home run.  He threw eight strong innings, and tallied only 91 pitches.  Cueto may have just added a few million to his annual salary for next year.

In the bottom of the eighth, A.J. Hinch brought Dallas Keuchel out to open the frame.  It didn't go well.  For the second time this series, Alcides Escobar hit an extra-base hit to RF - a grounder just fair down the line on this occasion.  Ben Zobrist followed with a line-out to second base.  Lorenzo Cain was intentionally walked, then Eric Hosmer fouled out for the second out if the inning.  Kendrys Morales followed, and with two on, he took a slurvy breaking pitch, and drove it well out to CF.  That shot was measured at 440 feet, the Royals took a five run lead, and the Astros' season looked gone.

And it was.  Ned Yost - in no hurry to repeat the Astros' mis-steps in Game 4, turned to Wade Davis for the ninth.  Davis retired the side in order, striking out Preston Tucker, getting Altuve to ground out, and retiring George Springer on a deep fly ball that fell just short of a home run for the last out.  The Royals got to celebrate on their home field, and the Astros had been two-hit in an important elimination game, with no baserunners after the second frame (that was only extended in the first place on a mis-play).  Gah!

Turning Point:
More BABIP fun in the fourth and fifth innings for the Royals, who were dead-efficient in scoring runs.  Two singles - neither hit particularly hard - scored a run in the fourth, and a HBP, two doubles (the second of which was a seeing-eye double), a sac-bunt and a sac-fly resulted in three runs in the fifth.  The Royals' offence was impressive over the course of this series - they ground out some tough at-bats, and their contact-abilities with two strikes was fairly impressive, which often yielded them better pitches to hit later in their at-bats.

Man of the Match:
Valbeuna, for having half of the Astros' hits, and showing some impressive pop.

Goat of the Game:
It has been a wonderful, unexpected season for the Astros, and it is a pity that it had to end on a Game 5 like this.  It would not be fair to award an end-of-season Goat to an Astro.  I would comment, however, that the Royals nullified any threat from Colby Rasmus (who has likely played his last game in an Astros uniform), striking him out three times in three at-bats.  Jose Altuve's 0-for-19 end of season swoon was also not welcome.  But, I reiterate, no Goats have been awarded.

Up Next:
The offseason, sadly.  The meek ending to the 2015 season is not befitting of the Astros' efforts throughout this year.  My pick is that if the Astros make the postseason in 2016, they will be much better placed to win a series like this by virtue of the experience they gained over the last five games.  But it still won't feel good - both to the fans, and to the players.

Remember to check in at periodically over the offseason.  I will be in occasionally, and will start a "comings and goings" diary, like I did last year.  I also have some stuff planned on PED use, and I look forward to providing crappy analysis on any trades or signings.  Watching how the Astros handle the offseason will also be interesting - they are again pretty exposed in terms of the Rule 5 draft and the 40-man roster, and they will want to avoid another Delino DeShields-sized mistake.  So there is plenty to talk about, and it will all be covered on the most interesting Astros site on the internet.

Have a great offseason, everyone.