Monday, October 5, 2015

From the Office of the County Clerk - G162: Astros in Arizona

Lance McCullers (6-7, 3.21) versus Robbie Ray (5-12, 3.50)

So there we have it, Astros fans and loyal readers.  For the first time in a decade, the Astros are a playoff team.  Unlike the last playoff team in 2005, this team looks like it is on the upswing, rather than reaching the end of its shelf life.  Today - Game 162 - was not perfect, however: the Astros were denied the opportunity to challenge the Fort Worth Rangers for the AL West, then they were unable to secure home-field advantage for the Wild Card Game.  However, looking at the bright side, their travel plans for the next few days are now clear, and they don't have to participate in either a play-in game, or any other kind of Game 163.  Plus, the Astros enter the playoffs with an already fresh bullpen, with their best pitcher on the mound, and with an offense which has shown some encouraging signs of life recently - even on the road.

Playing New York at New York isn't the worst match-up in the world, either.  The Astros have a lot of fly-ball hitters, and I seem to have the impression that they hit a few outs to the warning track - which could get out at Yankee Stadium.  Rasmus and Valbuena - in particular - may get a Yankee Stadium boost.  Plus, Dallas Keuchel is an extreme groundballer, so the Yankees may have a little bit of trouble getting the ball in the air and taking similar advantage.  Looking at matchups on paper, however, is an exercise in futility - Keuchel (or Tanaka, for that matter) may have an absolute shocker, and the game may be gone early for either team.  It is going to be interesting to watch.

Anyhow, lets turn our attention to G162 for the next few minutes.  This game was an interesting one - it was fairly tight, with some encouraging moments, but in other way it was a microcosm of the Astros' season.  The Astros came back three times and looked like they had what it takes to pull it off, but they were ultimately done in by their own mistakes.  The bullpen again faltered - this was not a feature of the season as a whole, but was certainly a feature of two weeks in late June and the last five weeks of the season.  You could see a more mature (or less enthusiastic) Astros' team grinding this one out - perhaps the 2017 Astros would be more likely to grab a win in a situation like this.

Astros lose, 5-3, mostly because Paul Goldschmidt is awesome.

On the Mound:
Lance McCullers was the unsurprising starter tonight.  I am sure he wouldn't have gone if the Astros had no chance or catching the Rangers or Yankees - then the start would have fallen to a Dan Straily or someone similar.  Anyhow, pressure-wise, this was the biggest start of McCullers' career, and for the most part, he handled it well.  The radio guys made multiple comments about the lack of sweat, humidity and air pressure, and what that does to curveball grips and spin rates, because the Delaware clay that the balls are rubbed up with loses moisture and becomes all shiny.

McCullers started reasonably well, getting two outs without incident until throwing a 2-1 fastball up in the zone to A.J. Pollock.  Castro called for the pitch down and away, McCullers missed arm-side-and-up, and Pollock took him deep to dead CF for a solo shot.  It was a nice piece of hitting from a guy that has had a great season (.315/.367/.498, with solid defence).

McCullers had a solid second frame (only a one-out walk) before he loaded the bases in the third inning with two outs.  Steve Sparks on the radio commented that McCullers looked like he was keen to get back into the dugout and have a quick inning, and immediately afterward McCullers gave up two two-out singles.  McCullers elevated a 3-2 curveball to Phil Gosselin which was lined into RF, then he allowed another single on a similar pitch to A.J. Pollock.  Goldschmidt followed with a walk to load the bases, but McCullers struck Jarrod Saltalamacchia out looking for the last out on a 2-2 curveball that broke back over the plate toward the lefty.

The next inning was the critical one, in my opinion.  If this inning doesn't happen, Chad Qualls probably does not get to pitch in this game.  The inning started relatively well, with Aaron Hill fouling out to first base.  The second out should have been made when Jake Lamb rolled over on a grounder to Chris Carter.  Carter made a nice play coming in, and may well have been able to beat Lamb to the bag himself.  But McCullers was covering, so Carter employed an underhanded toss.  The toss was fine, but McCullers was tasked with catching the ball and standing on first at the same time.  The ball bounced off the heel of his glove, and rolled far enough away for McCullers to have no chance to get Lamb at first.  A one out reached-on-error later proved to be an important baserunner.

McCullers bounced back, striking out Chris Owings.  That brought Robbie Ray to the plate... and he doubled (!) on a slash down the third base line.  The pitch was a similar pitch to the one that Salty had struck out on - a curveball that started outside to the lefty and broke into the zone, and Ray hammered it along the ground just inside the third base bag.  Lamb stopped at third because of slick glove work from González, and Ray cruised into second.

Lamb scored when McCullers elected to pitch out of the windup, and balked.  It was a huge call from Jeff Nelson, the crew chief stationed at third, but it was correct.  The balk was the first from an Astros pitcher all year, and it proved vitally important.  Lamb - who had reached on an error - scored, and Ray advanced to third.  Socrates Brito ended the inning by grounding out for the third out, but the damage had been done.

McCullers came out for the fifth - no surprise there - and he again recorded some quick outs.  Then Paul Goldschmidt singled on a line drive to CF, advanced on a spiked breaking ball that Castro did well to keep in front of him, and scored on a two-out ground rule double.  Saltalamacchia took a 2-2 pitch, drove it deep to RF, and the ball bounced on the warning track and over the fence.  If Goldschmidt doesn't advance, no run would have been scored, because the next batter grounded out (simplistic analysis acknowledged).

Tony Sipp opened the sixth inning, and he managed to get the first two outs without incident.  Then Peter O'Brien hit a double down the LF line that wedged in the padding in the corner, and it was correctly adjudicated to be a ground-rule double.  Sipp then walked Socrates Brito, which resulted in Chad Qualls being summonsed from the 'pen, and he struck out Phil Gosselin for the final out on three efficient pitches.

Qualls stayed on for the seventh, and the game was tied 3-3 by virtue of the Astros scoring in the top half of the frame.  The scores stayed tied for no further outs, however, because A.J. Pollock led off with a single to RF, then Paul Goldschmidt followed with a majestic home run into the LF bleachers. It was a full-count-something-elevated - looked like a cut fastball or hard slider - that was located up and inside, and Goldschmidt turned on it, and kept it just fair, inside the foul pole.  The ball bounced off the back wall of the bullpen, so it got out by plenty.

That ran the score to 5-3.  Oliver Pérez relieved Qualls, and his outing was unremarkable.  Pat Neshek scuffled a little, allowing a single and a double to put runners on the corners, but he escaped by getting Pollock to fly out.  Neshek looks to be scuffling with his location, and both the hits seemed to be recorded on fastballs that ran too far in to the righty hitters. 

At the Plate:
Robbie Ray, who the Diamondbacks acquired as part of the Didi Gregorius trade, has had a solid season.  He opened fairly solidly, allowing a Springer hustle-double in the first.  Springer hit a hard grounder to the LF side of CF - medium depth only - and because Pollock had to come in on the ball, Springer took second on a slide.  It was all to no avail, however, as Correa lined out to third base, and Rasmus struck out swinging to end the frame.

The Astros managed their second consecutive one-out hit (a single into LF for Marwin González) in the second inning, and third one-out hit (an Altuve single) in the third.  Altuve dumped one into shallow RF, then he scored when Springer hammered a pitch that was meant to be down and away, but caught the middle of the zone.  The hit was a hot line drive that landed just to the RF side of CF, slicing just out of Pollock's reach.  Altuve had hesitated to make sure that ball wasn't caught, and Springer kept going past second - possibly to protect Altuve at the plate, although Altuve would have scored easily - but he was caught in a rundown and tagged out.  Impressive bit of hitting, but over-aggressive bit of baserunning.  Probably wouldn't have mattered, however, because the next two hitters struck out.

The Astros managed another one-out single in the fourth - a Chris Carter grounder that was unable to be cleanly fielded by the third baseman.  They immediately followed with another single (a González single to left which looked very similar to the second inning) to put runners on first and second.  But Jed Lowrie - who looked late on the fastball all night - and Jason Castro - who couldn't lay off breaking balls - struck out to end the frame without damage.  Ray had struck out the side while allowing two hits.

In the fifth inning, the Astros - gasp - managed a one-out hit.  This one was a triple from Jose Altuve, who hit a hard grounder down the LF line.  Altuve motored for second, then the ball clanged around in the corner in full sight of Altuve, so he gunned for third.  The throw in was offline - it would have needed to have been perfect for there to be a play on the wee guy - and the Astros had a man at third with one out.  

The next batter was George Springer, and we worked a 1-2 pitch off his lead elbow to reach base.  Then Carlos Correa walked on a full count to load the bases.  Evan Gattis pinch hit for Colby Rasmus, and he beat out a grounder to shortstop that recorded a lone out at second base.  Chris Carter followed by striking out against the reliever, Randall Delgado, who pitched really well.  

Randall Delgado retired the side in order in the sixth.  In the seventh, the Astros didn't record a one-out hit, but did record a two-out walk to George Springer instead.  Then Carlos Correa singled to left field - a line drive pretty much right to the fielder - and somehow Springer went first-to-third.  That put runners on the corners for Handsome Jake Marisnick who had a 2-0 count when Daniel Hudson's low fastball eluded Salty and bounced toward the Astros' dugout.  The carom was so extreme that Correa went first to third on it.  However, Marisnick turned a 3-0 count into a strikeout three pitches later, and Correa was stranded at third.

Brad Ziegler pitched the last two innings for the Diamondbacks.  He allowed a two-out single in the eighth to dancing robot Hank Conger, then allowed the first two runners to reach in the ninth.  The second of these runners was Jose Altuve, and that hit meant that he recorded 200 on the season.  However, a George Springer double-play on a hard-hit grounder up the middle erased the game tying run off of the bases, and Carlos Correa grounded out for the last out.  Regular season over, and the Astros were unable to catch the Yankees.

The box score is again interesting.  The top of the order (Jose Altuve - 3-5, 3B - and George Springer - 2-3, BB, HBP, 2x2B) dominated.  After that, it gets a little patchy.  Carlos Correa went 1-4 with a walk, Colby Rasmus went 0-2 with 2K, Chris Cartet went 1-4 with 2K and Marwin González went 2-3.  However, Jed Lowrie struck out three times in three at-bats, Jason Castro struck out three times in four at-bats, and Lance McCullers isn't expected to be able to hit.

Turning Point:
The Astros' fielding miscues were the turning points of this game.  The fourth inning error resulted in Jake Lamb reaching on a catching error from Lance McCullers and later scoring from third on a balk.  The fifth inning involved a two-out single from Paul Goldschmidt who advanced on a spiked curveball, then scored on a ground-rule.  If neither of those runs scored, the two teams may still be playing in a tied game, but I would have pegged the advantage to the Astros because of the state of the relative bullpens.  

Man of the Match:
Jose Altuve has not managed to attain the levels of success that he had last season, but he is still a nasty hitting machine.  When Altuve and Springer hit the ball hard at the top of the order, the Astros look like a side with serious postseason potential.  Altuve scored two of the three runs today, and his 200th hit breaks a tie with George Springer for the MoTM.

Goat of the Game:
Jed Lowrie is in a wee slump.  1-for-his-last-24 or thereabouts, I believe.  He was regularly busted inside today.  Not good.  Jed is important for this team, as he normally represents one of the harder outs of the lineup.  If his timing returns, then he could be an important weapon.

Up Next:
The postseason, baby!!  I didn't dare to imagine this at the beginning of the season.  The Wild-Card Game is much better than fourth place in the West.  Well done, Astros!

Houston versus New York... Dallas Keuchel versus Masahiro Tanaka

Tuesday 6 Sept, 8 Eastern, 7 Central.

This will be worth a watch.