Scott Kazmir (7-11, 2.97) versus Johnny Everyman (aka the Mariners Bullpen, 20-33, 4.12)
Like Carlos Gómez, AC Readers, I have declared myself fit and back in the lineup. I sincerely apologise for my absence, and will start by penning a brief note in explanation. I have not been that well, currently on my fourth antibiotic of the last 6 weeks - thankfully for a bunch of different (and weird) ailments - plus I took the family on a tropical holiday, which was awesome, but patchy internet-wise. A whole lot of other stuff has gone on, too, including a short-term job that involved 12 hour days, some reports needing to be submitted to various agencies, and the start of a new permanent job, which looks more do-able work-wise than the one I left in July.
Now, let me just log on and check the standings.... MOTHER OF GOD, WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED!! FRICKING RANGERS!! GAAAAAHHHHH!
It has been quite the swoon for the Astros in September, and for a brief period they dropped to third in the AL West (more on that later). I have been following the games, so the quip about checking the standing was for comedic value only. I remember sitting on ESPN Gameday and hitting 'refresh' on my browser while Dallas Keuchel gave up six runs in Dallas. Prior to that, I remember the Astros being BABIP'd to death in a bunch of games, aside from the one when Jed wrapped one around the foul pole in Anaheim for a memorable finish. More recently, they have been looking more like they have all year, with some solid periods of play, impressive looking offensive numbers when the ball is leaving the park, but with a few TOOTBLANS and baserunning gaffes thrown in. The bullpen is palpably different to earlier in the year, with Harris, Neshek, Fields and Gregerson all struggling for stretches of time over the last six weeks. Frustrating. But it is a young team, and they have ensured that they will finish about .500 this year, which I totally would have taken at the beginning of the year if you offered it to me.
Anyhow, the last four games are important, and as Alan Ashby said about 500 times during the telecast tonight - if the Astros win their last four, they will make the playoffs in some capacity. But then he had trouble adding up how many losses the Angels had, so I am not sure I should listen to his calculations too much. The Rangers and Angels both head out of series' against soft opponents into some serious baseball - against each other - whereas the Astros return to the National League, where they have managed a great record (14-3) this year. So that is something. The Astros just need a sweep in Arizona.
Turning our attention to the game tonight, the Astros managed the first of those four wins with a 7-6 win over the Mariners. They regain second in the AL West because the Angels lost... on a night Barry Zito started against them. If you think the game was fun to watch, then think again. It was riddled with errors on both sides, the Astros were sloppy in a number of different innings, and it nearly cost them the game. However, there were some great moments, including another Chris Carter bomb, and the Astros bullpen was solid in relief of Kazmir (who may have made his last start for the Astros, whether they make the playoffs or not), and there was definitely something to celebrate at the end when Carlos Gómez doubled off James Jones for the final out.
On the Mound:
For a while, I wondered whether the Mariners starter (Tony Zych, who has made NO starts as a professional) would last longer than Kazmir. Skotty K was not helped by his defence, but also gave up a bunch of hard-hit outs (starting with two warning track fly-balls in the first inning), and missed locations with all his pitches all night. His breaking ball was not sharp, and his change up was floaty (that is not a proper term). His fastball struggled to crack 90 for the first inning, but he pumped it up to 94 through the middle frames.
The first was uneventful, aside from the abovementioned fly outs. The second was awful - one of those cringeworthy innings from the Astros. It started with the Astros having runners in the corners and one out in the top half of the frame, but no one scored. In the bottom half, Robinson Canó singled leading off before Franklin Gutiérrez struck out swinging for the first out. Mark Trumbo popped up into foul ground on the third-base side, but Valbuena muffed the catch, and two pitches later, Trumbo walked. Both runners advanced on a wild pitch (so runners on second and third), then a grounder to short meant that neither runner could advance, and the second out was recorded. For a while, it looked like Kazmir may escape the frame, but Jason Castro missed a low fastball for a "wild pitch" (should have been a passed ball) for one runner to score, and Jesus Sucre singled to CF scoring the second runner. Horrible. If you want an inning that sums up the Astros' September, this is it.
I half expected Hinch to lift Kazmir at this point, but he continued pitching. He had a quick third inning, after hitting Kyle Seager on another missed-location-pitch to lead off the frame. But a strikeout looking of Nelson Cruz and a Robinson Canó GIDP meant that he faced the minimum. In the fourth, Kazmir also set the side down relatively quickly (on 11 pitches), again facing the minimum.
The fifth as Kazmir's undoing. He entered the inning with a lead - the Astros had scored three runs in the top half of the frame - but Kazmir was quickly in trouble. Jesus Sucre (hitting less than .150 starting the night) hit his second single with one out, then Ketel Marte followed with another single to put runners on the corners. The next pitch - to Kyle Seager - was a flat, elevated slider away, and Seager made no mistake, smashing it deep to the RF power alley for a three run shot. Nelson Cruz took two low fastballs for balls as the next batter, and when Kazmir tried to return to the well for the third time, Cruz drove it just over the RF wall for a second home run. Kazmir was left in for one more batter - Robinson Canó - and he was pulled after Canó singled. Josh Fields relieved, and he struck out Frankin Gutiérrez and Mark Trumbo to end the frame.
Fields retired the first two batters of the sixth before allowing consecutive singles. Tony Sipp relieved, and he enticed Kyle Seager into a pop up to short. The wind must have been knocking the ball around a bit in the air, because Correa didn't look at all comfortable under it. Sipp stayed on for the seventh, striking out Nelson Cruz then allowing a single to Robinson Canó (a hard-hit shot to the RF wall that Canó lolly-gagged into a single). Canó took second on a wild pitch on the first pitch of the next at-bat anyhow. The second out was recorded on a strikeout, then Mark Trumbo legged out a soft grounder to shortstop to put runners on the corners. But Sipp got Brad Miller to fly out, ending the inning without any damage.
Will Harris got the eighth, and Carlos Correa muffed a play to allow for a lead-off error. Correa looked a little off throughout this game, to be honest. He ain't doing his ROY chances any good. Anyhow, Harris bounced back, retiring the to-that-point-perfect Jesus Sucre on a fly ball to right field, then getting Ketel Marte to ground into a fielder's choice to second. Altuve flipped the ball to Correa for the first out, then Correa airmailed the throw to first for his second error of the inning when he left his feet to try and avoid the runner. Kyle Seager fouled out to end the frame with no damage.
Gregerson got the ninth, and he dominated for the first out. He made Cruz look silly on a strikeout - Cruz either didn't care, or had no idea what was coming. Robinson Canó followed with his fourth hit of the night. The game ended on an odd-yet-exciting play when Franklin Gutiérrez hit a hard liner to CF. Carlos Gómez camped under it, caught it and fired to first to get the pinch runner (James Jones), who stumbled trying to return to first base. Marwin González at first base invented a combination catch-and-fist-pump (fully aware that the runner was out) and the Astros celebrated a tight win. They were lucky, but they also did just enough to win.
At the Plate:
I half-expected the Astros to pound out double-digit runs against the Mariners 'pen, but they struggled a bit, riding a couple of three-run frames in the middle to a win. Tony Zych looked good to start with, retiring the side in order in the first on 13 pitches. As mentioned earlier, they blew a one-out-runners-on-the-corners second inning, with a Valbuena strikeout and a Chris Carter end-of-the-bat grounder ending the inning without any damage. George Springer reaching on an error was the only action of the third. In the fourth, a Carlos Gómez GIDP erased a Colby Rasmus single.
Finally, some good stuff happened in the fifth inning. Luis Valbuena homered on a 2-2 count leading off the frame. The pitch was a 2-2 94mph fastball thrown by Mayckol Guaipe that was meant to be down-and-away to the lefty, but missed glove-side. Valbuena - who seems to have loved hitting in Seattle this year - hit a high fly ball that got out of RF by by five yards or so. That put the Astros on the board.
Things looked better when the next batter, Chris Carter walked. Jason Castro then hit a line drive to the LF side of CF, and Shawn O'Malley dove and dropped the ball. Carter went to third, made it, and was called safe. But Lloyd McClendon challenged, and Carter was ruled to have come off the bag. He made an absolute hash of the slide, and the ruling was (correctly) overturned because Seager kept the tag, and Carter simply left the base when he was getting back to his feet. Castro had gone to second on the play.
The Carter error was magnified when Jose Altuve drove a line-shot over Mark Trumbo's head, to the RF wall. Castro scored, and Altuve went to second with a double. George Springer then singled to RF - Altuve scores easily, amirite? - but Altuve had frozen on the play, and only gotten to third. Runners on the corners. Carlos Correa was the next batter, and he looked to have hit a perfect GIDP ball, but Robbie Canó tried to get a little too cute on it, misplayed it altogether, and the ball wound up in CF. Altuve scored, Springer went to third, but he only got to watch as Gattis and Rasmus struck out to end the frame. Three runs scored - could have been many more.
The Astros entered the sixth down 6-3. It didn't stay that way for long. Carlos Gómez reached on a bunt single leading off, then stole second before Valbuena (who should really have been called out on strikes, but the ump missed it) walked. That brought Chris Carter to the plate, and he was quickly in an 0-2 hole. JC Ramírez tried to go down-and-away with a slide, but he missed arm side and the ball caught the middle third of the plate at the bottom of the zone. Carter did what Carter has done in September, and he mashed it deep into the LF power alley for a no-doubt, three-run, game tying shot. You gotta hand it to the Astros - they can't seem to slide into the bases correctly sometimes, but when they hit the ball, it stays hit.
So they entered the seventh tied at sixes. The Mariners made some defensive changes, which included moving Mark Trumbo to first base. Brad Miller took over RF, which I thought was a bad thing when Evan Gattis hit a line drive to RF with one out. Gosh, I thought, pity Trumbo isn't still in right - that might have dropped. Well, you know who is worse than Mark Trumbo in the field?? Brad Miller!! He came in on the ball, slipped as he slowed up to take the catch - or perhaps he lost it in the lights or something - and the ball bounced right beside him and went all the way to the wall. Gattis cruised into third on a "triple" (seriously - how is that not an error), and the Astros had a runner at third with one out in a tied game. Colby Rasmus was the next batter, and he brought Villar (pinch running for Gattis) home on a fisted fly ball, just over the drawn-in shortstop. Defensive alignments giveth, and defensive alignments taketh away, and the Astros had the lead.
The Astros threatened to score another in the seventh. Rasmus was on first, and Luis Valbuena doubled down to LF line. The ball ricocheted off the stands, and Gary Pettis - who would normally try and send a glacier second-to-home on a grounder back to the pitcher - put up the stop sign, proving he is not a one-trick pony. Rasmus was marooned at third as Chris Carter struck out swinging.
The eighth and ninth were largely uneventful, so lets look at who had the 14 hits. George Springer looked like the best of the hitters (2-5, and a few hard-hit outs), but Gattis (2-4, 3B), Rasmus (2-4), Gómez (2-4) and Valbuena (2-3, BB, HR, 2B) also had good nights. Chris Carter (1-3, BB, HR) had a vital home run. Altuve went 1 for 5, and Correa also went 1-5, but his lone hit should probably have been an error on Robbie Canó.
Don't miss on a slider that is meant to be away to Chris Carter. At least in September. Carter hit a vital three-run shot that is the main subject of this video. Watch it, and revel in the occasional awesomeness of Chris Carter.
Man of the Match:
Luis Valbuena had a good night at the plate - but less of a good night with the glove. He went 2-3, with two extra-base hits, one of which was a solo home run. He dropped a fly-ball in foul territory to give Mark Trumbo a critical extra-chance, and he got tangled up with Correa on another Trumbo grounder to short, that Correa should have been left to have a clear run at. Still, 2-3, BB, with six total bases is nothing to sniff at. Valbuena hits well at Safeco - .271/.316/.471 on his career, .292/.357/.708 in 2015 at Safeco entering this game.
Goat of the Game:
I hate handing out goats. But, tonight, this one goes to Skotty Kazmir. His final line was not pennant-race material - 4.1IP, 7H, 6R/4ER, 2BB, 3K. The guy looked tired, had no control, and not much in the way of velocity. He may have made his last start as an Astro, playoffs or not.
The Astros prepare for a series in Phoenix, Arizona, against the Diamondbacks, which starts in Friday. Tomorrow is a big day in the Astros' season, however, because their main rivals for the AL West start a four-game series in Arlington. Everyone will be watching with interest.
When the Astros DO resume on Friday, the matchup will be:
Dallas Keuchel (19-8, 2.47) versus Rubby De La Rosa (14-8, 4.56)
9:40 Eastern, 8:40 Central.
I will probably be able to cover the last two games of this series, but not the next one. Apologies again, AC readers, for my absence over the last month, but I should be back for the rest of the year (aside from the next game) and the offseason.