Wednesday, April 6, 2016

From the Office of the County Clerk - G1: Astros at Yankees

Dallas Keuchel (0-0, 0.00) versus Masahiro Tanaka (0-0, 0.00)

Plenty of snark and sarcasm has been directed toward the Yankees for this opening series, including by the Astros themselves (regarding the weather) and John Oliver (involving other matters).  However, when the dust settled and the ice melted, it was finally time for the Astros to play ball.  This was good, because having the opportunity have new memories overlay those from the eighth inning onward in Game 4 of the ALDS last year is certainly something to be welcomed by this long-suffering fan and part-time analyst.

The Astros opened their season with another win over the Yankees.  The trailed early, drew level on an impressive homer, and drew away late in controversial circumstances for a 5-3 win.  Luck tended to favour the Astros, and they were the beneficiaries of a couple of crucial calls late in the game.  Houston makes in four in a row, at least in terms of opening day wins (one of which came against the Yankees and CC Sabathia a few years ago).  The Yankees have lost on opening day five straight years now.

I note that all decent Astros fans would have caught up on the game by now.  It was screened on ESPN, and (of course) GameDay and ROOT Sports.  Writing a game recap this long after an East Coast day game may not be the best idea, but hey, it is opening day, and if we don't do Game 1 of an exciting season, what game should we do??

On the Bump 
The stories around the pitching revolved around icy weather and Dallas Keuchel.  The temperature hovered at-or-around freezing most of the game, with a stiff wind blowing in from LF.  Keuchel mentioned in the post-game that the wind was knocking the balls around a little, helping to make it hard to consistently find home plate.  May explain why he struggled a little with his control at times - or alternatively, perhaps his tendency to nibble in the middle innings reared its head again.

Keuchel scuffled a little early in the game, facing the minimum in the first (despite yielding a one-out walk), and giving up two runs in the second.  A one out single in the second (a soft grounder hit through a hole caused by an overshift) followed by a walk resulted in two baserunners.  Chase Headley then grounded up the middle for a tailor-made double play ball, but Correa couldn’t glove it cleanly.  He (Correa) recovered, then unleashed a wild throw to first to try and get the force – Marwin Gonzalez (starting at first) saved Correa from recording his first error of the season by stretching toward RF, and just holding the bag with his toe to record the out.  But the opportunity for an inning-ending twin killing was missed, and on the second pitch of the next at-bat, Starlin Castro kept a line-drive just fair down the LF line and into the corner, scoring two.  The pitch was a thigh-high inside fastball, probably off the plate.

Keuchel's struggles with control continued in the next frame, when he walked A-Rod and Teixeira (both on full-counts) with two outs.  He got the third out of the inning without incident.  A single leading off the fourth was erased on a Starlin Castro double-play grounder to Valbuena, and that was the last baserunner that Keuchel allowed.  After the leadoff batter reached in the fourth, the Yankees were set down in order (including a double-play to end the fourth) until the end of the seventh.  Lots of weak contact, no more walks.  Keuchel’s final line: 7IP, 2R/ER, 4 walks, 5K’s  Three hard-hit balls – Teixeira was perhaps robbed of a homer in the second, mashing it up into the strong wind, Castro’s double down the LF line, and a deep fly-out to CF by Beltrán in the sixth.

Ken Giles, as widely reported, isn't the closer, and therefore he came out for the eighth.  He sat a comfortable mid-nineties on the radar gun, facing Didi Gregorius as his first official batter in an Astros’ uniform.  It didn’t end well, with Gregorius accessing the short-porch in RF for a solo shot - the pitch was meant to be a fastball away, but Giles missed over the plate, and the fly ball landed four or so rows in the RF stands.  That narrowed the lead to two, but Giles bounced back nicely, and retired the next three in order, including an aesthetically-pleasing strikeout of a clearly uncomfortable Brett Gardner.  Gregerson has been assigned the closing duties, and his night progressed in typical Gregerson fashion – grounder, K-swinging, grounder.  Game ova!

At the Plate:
Tanaka was on his game early, with a running fastball painting the 1B side of the plate at will.  He used this pitch effectively, setting up his little cutter / baby-slider for a couple of strikeouts, including of Carlos Correa and Carlos Gómez in the first two frames.  It didn't look good at that stage, as Tanaka mowed the Astros down in order through the first three frames.

However, in the top of the third, Preston Tucker hit a hard liner to LF, which was successfully corralled by Aaron Hicks.  Leading off the fourth, José Altuve hit another hard-hit line drive into LF, and Hicks misplayed this one, not retreating fast enough.  The ball got over his head, and Altuve was (perhaps generously) credited with a double.  Springer then hit a nubber down the 3B line, which Chase Headley put in his pocket, advancing Altuve to third.  With runners on the corners, Carlos Correa grounded out hard to Headley, but he made a nice play low and to his right, firing a strong throw to second for the force.  No attempt to complete the double-play was made, and Correa had recorded the first RBI (on a fielder's choice) of the season for the Astros.

Correa then stole second, in somewhat comical fashion, as he was called out while the ball was rolling on the infield dirt 8 feet away from him, having been dropped during the tag attempt.  Once the ump realised his mistake, he called him safe.  However, he was able to advance only to third on a Rasmus groundout - Carlos Gómez struck out flailing at anything within a postcode of the strike zone for the final out.  At this point, the Astros trailed 2-1.

Preston Tucker hit another line drive on the nose with one out in the fifth.  This time, it was a pull-side shot, and it got down for a hard-hit double.  Tucker looked good at the plate in his two appearances - he seemed calm, and he made excellent contact in both at-bats.  The game-tying run scored in the sixth - Carlos Correa took a fastball that was slightly elevated and leaking back over the plate, and he slammed it into the RF stands.  The ball was well hit, and this resulted in a line drive that got out in a hurry.  By this time, my two kids were up and getting ready for school, and they asked me to replay the home run, "but this time without the yelling, Daddy".  Stupid kids - the yelling is the fun bit.  That levelled the score, and Tanaka exited after walking the next batter, Colby Rasmus (who fought back from a 1-2 count).

In the seventh, Tyler White pinch hit for Preston Tucker with one out (lefty Chasen Shreve was on the bump).  He looked a little overmatched in that at-bat, I thought, especially when he swung at strike two, which was about a foot inside and off the plate.  However, on the next pitch, Shreve tried to throw an offspeed pitch down-and-away, and White stayed with it, lining up the middle for a single.  Great contact-ability, I thought.  White's next at bat (in the eighth) was scary - he wore a fastball up and in on the base of his right hand, after turning his head away from the incoming pitch by way of emergency avoidance.  It was a frightening incident, as the pitch was well up-and-in near the head, and another Astros batter gets plunked.  Hmmmm.

The eighth inning was the big inning.  José Altuve worked a walk - Dellin Betances was really nowhere near the strike zone, and the one strike call was a bit of a gift.  Altuve then stole second, and after a Springer fly-out, Carlos Correa reached out for a slider down-and-away, and hit a nubber up the first base line.  Correa's momentum (as a result of the emergency hack) took him onto the grass to start heading to first, and he stayed on the grass all of the way up the 1B line, which he probably shouldn't have.  Additionally and arguably, Correa took a hint of a step toward Betances as he picked the ball up, but it didn't seem to affect his ability to cleanly scoop the ball.  Anyhow, Betances then tried to lob the ball over Correa for the force - and as Steve Sparks described, kind of like a shot-putter, who starts with the ball in the base of his hand, and rolls it off the end of his fingers as he flexes his wrists.  Teixeira had no chance at the catch, and the ball lobbed slowly down the RF line.  Altuve kept running, scored, and after the discussion (further elaborated on below), the Astros led 3-2.

The discussion was about whether, in the judgment of the umpire, Correa's actions caused Betances' crappy throw.  Like I said, if Correa could be potentially accused of interfering with Betances, but it would have been on the pickup where I thought he stepped toward Betances (and further into the field of play) a little.  However, Betances made an error in trying to throw over Correa - if he had nailed him in the back, Correa was inside the line (and therefore out of the runners lane), and would have been called out and Altuve would not have been allowed to advance.  However, by trying to avoid Correa, he created a difficult throw, and Teixeira would have had an obstructed view, so the chances of him having a look at where the ball was coming from was also pretty low.  Anyhow, Joe Girardi came out, tossed his toys around, lodged a protest, then went back into the dugout seething, and the game continued without incident.

Correa stole second - and for the second time was initially adjudged out by the umpire on the tag.  This one was overturned on review, with Correa showing eye-watering flexibility to hold the bag.   Rasmus followed with a strong at-bat, working a walk.  Carlos Gómez struck out trying to hit the ball to Staten Island.  Then the critical call of the game occurred.  Refer below to the "Turning Point" for more details.

Overall, I was impressed with the at-bats from the Astros as a team today.  Altuve put together a number of quality at-bats, doubling once and walking once.  Springer popped out on first pitches twice, but his remaining at-bats were strong.  Ironically, his lone hit was on a nubber.  Carlos Correa looked good at the plate.  Rasmus went hitless, but worked two strong walks in important situations.  Tucker and White combined to reach base in three out of four plate appearances.  Only González, Castro and Gómez went without getting on base, combining for 8 strikeouts.  Gómez easily had the worst at-bats of the game, swishing at absolutely everything within five fathoms of the plate, and being called out looking at a critical time.  But he looks healthy, and if he gets hot... look out!

Turning Point:
A missed call from the ump, and it went the Astros' way.  The 'Stros were leading in the eighth, having scored once of a Betances error.  Luis Valbuena was at the plate, with Correa on second and Rasmus - who had bounced back from an 0-2 count - taking first with a base-on-balls.  Valbuena was sitting 2-2, and Betances threw a perfect slider, down and in, which caught a large chunk of the strike zone.  Everyone started heading toward their respective dugouts, but HP ump Dana DeMuth may have been the only one on the field who didn't see it as a strike.  A ball was called, and on the next pitch (which was also a slider in a similar location), Valbuena was not taking any chances.  He swung, lined it just past a lunging Castro, flipped the bat, and headed to first (advancing to second on the throw).  Correa and Rasmus scored on the play, and the Astros had a three run lead (instead of a one run lead, which they would have blown courtesy of Ken Giles' generosity).

Man of the Match:
Carlos Correa.  RBI grounder, HR, nubber that scored a run on an error, and one solid leaping play at shortstop.  Not a bad night.

Goat of the Game:
Carlos Correa.  Stick with me here.  Firstly, he could have hit four home runs.  Secondly, he was the architect of the only defensive miscue - not gloving the ball as he moved to his left, thereby blowing the chance at a double-play, and setting up Castros' 2RBI double as the next batter.  Sound familiar??  Game 4, ALCS anyone??  Bit rough, perhaps, but a double-play would have been great in that situation.

If you don't like that choice, let's go with Carlos Gómez.

On the Morrow:
Collin McHugh versus Michael Pineda, 7 Eastern, 6 Central.

Isn't is nice to have baseball back??