Dallas Keuchel (1-0, 2.57) versus Jimmy Nelson (0-1, 2.45)
The Astros' second rubber game in two series to open 2016, and the second missed opportunity to take a road series. The Astros have not played well since getting fortunate in the first game of the season, but in this game, most of the wounds were self-inflicted. The annoying thing from a fans perspective is that they have wasted some excellent performances in this stretch with some inept play. In Game 6, the ineptitude was obvious, definable and concrete, resulting in a frustrating 3-2 loss.
So the game started well, with José Altuve jumping all over Jimmy Nelson's first pitch, hammering a long home run to the LF power alley. The pitch was meant to be a sinker in but Nelson missed glove-side, and Altuve nearly hit Bernie Brewers's slide above the LF bleachers. Altuve has surprising pop, on it was display again, as it was often in 2015.
Then, pretty much everything else that happened in the game was not in favour of the Astros. Springer singled on the next pitch, then was thrown out stealing with Correa at the plate. Fabulous piece of work from the pitcher-catcher battery, and Rivera (starting at second base) dropped the perfect tag on him. One run was all the Astros would score in their half of the first.
Dallas Keuchel struggled with his control early in his outing. Walk (to Domingo Santana), strikeout (Villar), walk (Braun), walk (Carter) leaded the bases for Aaron Hill. Hill came up hacking, Keuchel missed a little down and glove-side with the first pitch, and Springer had a line-drive drop just short of his glove as he came in and tried to make the miracle play. The hit to RF plated two. Things got worse as a walk to Martin Maldonado (the back-up catcher) re-loaded the bases, but Keuchel bounced back to strike out Yadiel Rivera and Jimmy Nelson, the opposing catcher to limit the damage.
So Keuchel walked four in an inning, and allowed one hit. Given he found himself in bases loaded jams twice, it could have been much worse. After the first, he settled down, began locating the ball down in the strike zone a little more (although quite a few of his pitches still missed up) resulting in a more familiar feel to the game. He set down the Brewers in order in the second and allowed a double to Chris Carter on the first pitch of his one-out at-bat in the third (just inside the third-base bag) before yielding another run in the fourth. A lead off double put Yadiel Rivera on second, Jimmy Nelson (batting 8) laid down a bunt to the first base side, but no one covered first on the wheel play, and no out was able to be recorded. The runner did not advance. After Keon Broxton struck out, Domingo Santana worked the count to 3-1 before Kuechel had to come over the plate with a fastball, and Santana lined it to the RF gap for a double. With the pitcher on the bases, the Brewers were conservative with their running, and only one run scored. Villar grounded out before Keuchel IBB'd Ryan Braun (loading the bases) then lured Chris Carter into a groundout. At this point, the Brewers led, 3-1.
In the meantime, the Astros had their opportunities at the plate. Tyler White walked leading off the second, but he was stranded on a grounder and two strikeouts. Altuve walked and stole second with one out in the third. But catcher and human-cannon Martin Maldonado caught him lolly-gagging off second after a pitch, and threw behind him. Altuve was toasted on the run down. In the fourth, Correa got picked off after working a lead-off walk. He simply tried for his secondary lead too early, Jimmy Nelson stepped off and threw behind him, and Correa was toast. For those keeping count, the Astros lost three baserunners in the first four frames, with only one of those a traditional caught stealing.
Preston Tucker homered leading off the fifth to reduce the deficit to 1. Jimmy Nelson tried to locate the pitch down-and-away, but he missed up and glove-side, and Tucker drove it just out to the LF power alley. Tucker has scorched the ball this year, and certainly deserves more playing time (which he got today at the expense of Carlos Gómez).
In the bottom half of the fifth, Milwaukee were granted a baserunner on a missed catch error by Tyler White. After a walk, Jimmy Nelson bunted to move the runners over, but the ball was deadened too much and Castro grabbed it just fair down the third-base line, very close to home plate. Castro went for the force at third, which he managed without problem. MarGo then fired across to first for the attempt at the DP, and Jimmy Nelson was ruled out (despite appearing safe on super-slo-mo). The call was never going to be overturned, however, as Martin Maldonado grabbed MarGo's leg as he slid past the base (á la Joey Bats and Logan Forsythe), so interference won the day - the second call of the series.
The rest of the game was all about missed opportunities for the Astros. They got a lead-off walk in the seventh, and with no outs Rasmus (who worked the walk) advanced to second on a wild pitch. Foul-out, strikeout, strikeout ended that inning. In the eighth, the Astros started the inning poorly when pinch hitter Carlos Gómez struck out on four pitches. But another pinch hitter Luis Valbuena walked before José Altuve grounded into a fielder's choice. But the pitchers attempt at a force out at second sailed into CF, putting runners on the corners. Fly-out, ground-out ended that frame without the game tying run scoring from third, and although the fly-out was shallow, Marisnick (pinch-running) would have scored from third as the throw sailed up the line.
And in the ninth, Rasmus struck out on a 2-2 count, Tyler White grounded to second, and Preston Tucker smashed a ball back up the middle, literally right back into the pitcher's glove. The second baseman was shifted right behind the pitcher, so unless it deflected, it probably wouldn't have resulted in a hit.
So this loss was all about self-inflicted wounds. The two vital runs that scored early in the game were both as a result of walks. The Astros pitchers combined for seven walks, six by Keuchel. They allowed another two baserunners by errors - one on a blown wheel play where no one covered first on a bunt attempt and the second via a catching error by Tyler White. In the eighth, they failed to drive in the game-tying run from third with one out. And, as the icing on the cake, they helped Brewers starter Jimmy Nelson out by losing three men on the bases, two via lolly-gagging on the base paths, and drawing throws behind them.
What I found impressive were the Altuve and Tucker home runs - both not guys that have homered in recent games, proving the Astros have power all through the order. I was also impressed by Keuchel gutting out five-and-two-thirds innings, especially after six walks and eight strikeouts combined to run his pitch count up. He was missing up in the zone early in the game, and a solidly-hit grooved fastball would have had a good chance of leaving the stadium, and hanging a seriously crooked number up there. Fields and Harris also looked good in their outings.
But overall, this was another game for the Astros they could have won, already the third game of the year like this. They had better sharpen up in a hurry because:
The Royals are in town for the home opener.
Collin McHugh (0-1, 135.00) versus Chris Young (0-1, 3.60)
8 Eastern, 7 Central.
As a special treat for AC readers, I can inform you that your much-loved Cockroach is back from having his blogging collateral ligament replaced, and after 18 months of rehab, he will be covering the Royals' series.