So the Tigers roll into town to face the reigning Cy Young Award winner on Jackie Robinson Day. The Tigers are the current best offensive team in the AL (at least according to runs scored), and they seem to have any number of righty sluggers waiting to pound on opposing left-handed starters. Keuchel has been recognised as the best pitcher in the AL, and his recent dominance at home cannot be underestimated - he carried a 1.46 ERA and 15 wins in 18 starts last year, striking out 139 in 130-odd frames while walking only 28, and allowing only 87 hits.
Perhaps not quite the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, but this was certainly going to be an interesting matchup. Especially in lieu of Keuchel's recent struggles with walks and velocity, after what seemed like a dominant spring.
An although the outcome was a much needed win, of the 1-0 variety - the first 1-0 win for the Astros in four years - I was almost left with more of a sense of disquiet than if the Astros had lost. Why?? Well, the Astros reverted to classic 2012 - 2013 form in terms of situational hitting. I guess some credit needs to go to the opposing starter - who worked around a lot of traffic on the bases - but if any readers were at all concerned about the Astros' performance in important situations (such as Springer's "LED incident" last night), then this game would not have quelled any of those concerns.
On the Mound:
Keuchel generally looked like himself tonight, working in and off the corners low in the zone, working up and down a little, and changing speeds, keeping hitters off balance so that when a fat pitch did arrive, their timing was messed with. He pitched eight shutout innings, allowing five hits and one walk, while striking out four. This was a performance that effectively neutered a strong, right-leaning Tigers lineup.
The game didn't start well for the Astros, with Ian Kinsler singling to left field on the first pitch of the game. After a Justin Upton full-count strikeout looking, Miguel Cabrera singled up the middle, and Kinsler tried to go first-to-third, but was gunned down by a strong and accurate throw from Carlos Gómez. When V-Mart lined out to Gómez for the third out, the Tigers had managed to squander their best scoring chance of the evening.
After that, Keuchel settled down, with the benefit of some long breaks between innings. He allowed a one-out single to CF in the second, then a two out single to RF in the third (which died in front of Springer, who didn't seem to attack it, possibly having lost it in the lights again). Two ground-outs in a perfect fourth, three ground-outs in a perfect fifth, two grounders and a K in a perfect sixth carried Keuchel through the middle portion of the game, before a one-out single was sandwiched around three ground-outs in the seventh, and a one-out walk didn't advance in a four-batter eighth.
Luke Gregerson inherited a one-run lead and he threw five pitches in retiring the side. Strike-ball-grounder, line-out, fly-out (to the warning track in CF) was how that inning looked, and the Astros had managed to preserve the narrowest of margins with some solid pitching. The only Tigers baserunner to touch second all night was Ian Kinsler in the first, and he probably wished that his contact with second was of the more enduring kind, rather than a fleeting brush before being thrown out at third.
Kudos to Keuchel for a fabulous pitching performance. The fabulous resource at Brooks Baseball thinks that Keuchel's velocity remains a little down, having not touched 90 all night. His slider averaged a shade over 77, but truthfully, he looked a lot more comfortable, and seemed confident in attacking the hitters. All hits were singles, and the Astros outfielders were never called upon to make any outrageous plays. Welcome back, mate.
At the Plate:
If I was performing a "good-cop, bad-cop" routine of sorts in this game recap, then the good cop just exited the interview room. This is bad cop time, and he has a bit of a temper.
The frustrating thing about the 3-7 start on the season from the point-of-view of being a fan is that the Astros have been in a lot of games they have lost, but have failed to come through in the clutch time-and-time again. They are certainly constantly putting themselves in the position to succeed, but the number of times they have been outplayed, out-thought, or simply appeared to have been too eager to be the hero has been notable so far this year. And this is not something that is confined to this year - they led poorly from the front last year as well. Expectations are not good for this team at their current level of experience, perhaps.
The story of the game at the plate was one of un-clutch hitting. Again. Get this:
- Bases loaded in the first, one out - no runs
- Bases loaded in the second, no outs - no runs
- First and second in the third, no outs - no runs
- Runner on third, two outs in the fourth - no runs
- Runner on first, one out, in the fifth - no runs
Then, in the last three innings of the game (6-8), the Astros went down in order, striking out three times. Opportunities blown.
The first inning was when the only run scored. George Springer (1-4, R) singled to CF with one out, then Carlos Correa (0-3, BB) walked, sending Springer to second. Colby Rasmus (2-3, BB, RBI) took a sinker down-and-away, and hit a little dying line-drive off the end of the bat, which got down in LF. Gary Pettis sent Springer from second (despite not having a good jump), and it proved to be a game-winning call, as Justin Upton's throw dribbled to the plate off line. Alan Ashby made the point that Upton had to field the ball going to his left, the twist to throw right-handed, but really, I think he just has a rubbish arm.
So Tyler White (0-2, 2 BB) followed up with a walk, loading the bases. Evan Gattis (0-3, 2K) struck out on an awful swing on a fastball low, but down the pipe, then Carlos Gómez (0-3) grounded out to end the frame.
In the second, Luis Valbuena (0-2, BB) walked, then Jason Castro (2-3, K, SB) singled to shortstop. José Altuve (0-3, BB) followed with a walk loading the bases with no outs. A Springer K and a Correa GIDP was just what Mike Pelfrey's doctor ordered, and that ended the inning without bothering the scoreboard operators. In the third, a Rasmus single into the shift (the ball bobbled away from Ian Kinsler) and a Tyler White walk looked to set up another big frame. But then Evan Gattis fouled out and Carlos Gómez grounded into literally a perfect GIDP, right next to second base. Another opportunity wasted. In the fourth, Jason Castro channelled his inner Altuve, grounding a clean single up the middle with one out, then stealing second and advancing to third on the throwing error. That gave him a much better spot to watch George Springer lining out to RF for the last out of the inning.
So the Astros offense managed to ground into three double-plays to end the inning in the first five frames. One-for-eight with runners in scoring position. As mentioned previously, some credit is owed to the sinker ball of Mike Pelfrey. This meant that the Astros at the plate gave Dallas Keuchel and Luke Gregerson the narrowest of margins to work with, and thankfully, they were good enough to make it stand up.
The only run of the game scored when Colby Rasmus singled on a well-placed sinker down-and-away, slightly off the end of the bat. Rasmus' inability to barrel it up may have been a good thing, as the ball died short of Justin Upton in LF. Another short thing inhabiting this play was Justin Upton's throw, which was rubbish, and tricked to the catcher up the first-base line. Anyhow, Gary Pettis' gamble sending Springer paid off, and the Astros logged the only scoring play of the night.
Man of the Match:
Dallas Keuchel. Welcome back.
Goat of the Game:
The Astros' 6-8 hitters (Gattis, Gómez, Valbuena) went 0-8 with one walk. They went 0-4 with RISP, and made 9 outs in the process (one GIDP). No productive outs. The Astros had Mike Pelfrey on the ropes early, and the Detroit 'pen arrived in town taxed, so the Astros may live to regret their generosity later in the series. Chasing Pelfrey within three innings would have put Detroit in a tough spot for the rest of the series.
On the Morrow:
An intriguing matchup, full of power curveballs and high fastballs, one would think...
Justin Verlander (0-1, 8.71) versus Collin McHugh (1-1, 6.14)
7 Eastern, 6 Central.