Wednesday, May 4, 2016

From the Office of the County Clerk - G27: Astros versus Twins

Collin McHugh (2-3, 6.65) versus Alex Meyer (0-0, 18.00)

(a.k.a. The Battle for the AL Basement)

So the two bottom-most AL teams battle it out for the second day in a row with the "winner" owning the basement by themselves.  This occurred after the Astros dropped the first game of the series to the Twins (awesomely recapped by Jexas right here).  Dallas Keuchel seemed to nibble his way to another rough start last night, and the Astros scored two more runs, both on solo homers.  We have talked at length this year about (i) the poor starting pitching and (ii) the reliance on home runs to score runs, partly because of (iii) crappy situational hitting.  We won't mention (iv) Ken Giles because the guy probably needs a break.  Anyhow, the result has been a terrible April, a miserable start to the season, and a swift correction in playoff odds (although the "it's only April" brigade is constantly reminding us of how little of the season has passed).

And speaking of how much of the season has passed, the correct answer is 16.67% at the conclusion of this game.  The Lima Time Time podcast talked about Dan O'Dowd's "40-game" mark, which occurs in about two weeks from now, so various pundits will be starting to accept that the season has started and what has occurred is becoming predictive, so what has occurred so far is concerning.  The Astros are in a hole, last night's start from Keuchel was cause for continued concern, and the correction needs to come sooner, rather than later lest the 'stros be thinking about draft picks again.

Well, this game was a step in the right direction.  The Astros ran out winners by a score of 6-4.  Collin McHugh experienced a bit of a rough start, but the offense and bullpen largely picked him up.  The Astros climb out of the basement by virtue of their .333 winning percentage being *vastly* superior to the Twins' puny .296 winning percentage, sarcasm intended (the Yankees are also sitting at .333, but have played three fewer games).

And, if you are interested, it makes sense to note that the Astros trail the division leading (and visiting for a four-game set next) Seattle Mariners by 6.5 games.  The Ramgers bullpen had another poor game, losing to the Jays (due to Justin Smoak, of all people), and they sit a half-game back of Seattle.

Anyhow, on to the recap...

On the Mound:
I have been thinking - prompted by the last couple of Fister outings - about the actual order of the Astros starting pitchers.  With McCullers due back inside 10-or-so days, Joe Musgrove blitzing AA and depth pieces like Bradley J Peacock showing signs of life, I am sure that the Astros are carefully considering the possible exit order of the current starting five.  Feldman looks like he could be in the 'pen for a while - that was pretty easy to call - but who goes next, to be replaced by McCullers??  As I have previously said, Fister has been throwing pretty well, and has been the architect of two of the better starts the last two times through the order, so I would think he would be safe.  More importantly, where does McHugh fit in all of this??

But lets depart from speculation about McHugh's place on Luhnow's starting pitcher "hit list" and look at what he managed to achieve today.  McHugh wasn't sharp, but he was good enough to be credited with the win.  He was scored upon in four of the six innings that he pitched in, but all of the Twins' scoring efforts were of a solo nature.  His final line wasn't flash: five-and-two-thirds innings, allowing seven hits and two walks, while striking out six.  Four earned runs, two of which occurred on solo home runs.  McHugh allowed no other extra-base hits, aside from Miguel Sanó completing a couple before being tagged out in the sixth inning (he popped off the base, and Altuve kept the tag on).

Lots of traffic in the first inning: Danny Santana led off with a solo home run on an 0-2 (!) count.  McHugh tried to climb the ladder with the cutter.  If anything, he missed glove side (crowding the lefty) and Santana turned on it, hitting a line drive that hit the foul pole for a lead off home run.  Not McHugh's fault, I would have thought - Santana just beat him to the spot, and he did fabulously well to keep it fair.  Nice piece of hitting.

McHugh followed by walking Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer (the latter on 4 pitches), still with no outs.  However, Miguel Sanó's fly ball nestled in the glove of George Springer on the RF warning track, then José Altuve and Carlos Correa combined on a well executed broken-bat grounder to complete the inning-ending 4-6-3 twin killing to extract McHugh from further danger.

The Twins went down in order in the second, but took a 2-0 lead in the third.  A clean single the other way, an infield ground-out and an infield single put runners on the corners with one out.  Joe Mauer then grounded out to the right side to score the runner but record the second out, and Miguel Sanó struck out to end the frame.  More BABIP hard-luck for McHugh, or alternatively, better situational hitting from the Twins, with two runner-advancing grounders featuring prominently in the frame.

Two strikeouts punctuated the fourth inning as the Twins again went down in order.  McHugh got the first two outs in the fifth on a groundout and a strikeout, then Danny Santana singled up the middle and stole second.  Brian Dozier followed with a bloop off the end of the bat on a curveball down and off the plate away, and Santana was off and running from second with two outs.  He scored when the ball dropped between Correa and Rasmus for a single.  BABIP luck be damned, again.

A solo home run from Byung Ho Park was the only baserunner in the sixth.  It was a remarkable shot - McHugh went down-and-away with a four-seamer, and Park simply beat him to the location, and hammered a deep fly ball off the upper deck (!) of the RF grandstand.  Remember that Park is a right-handed hitter - that was some serious opposite field power - and again I am not entirely sure what McHugh could have done differently aside from not catch so much of the plate, or have the fastball a couple of inches lower.  If it was a miss, it didn't look like much of one.

So an interesting outing for McHugh.  Two innings where he located well, but the ball left the ballpark.  Two innings when hits were strung together and dropped in.  I am not sure he pitched as badly as four runs in less than six innings would suggest, but his stuff may not have been as sharp as it normally was as well.

Anyhow, Ken Giles relieved, and recorded the last out of the sixth by getting Eduardo Escobar to pop out.  Pat Neshek set the side down in order in the seventh on 12 pitches, Will Harris worked around a fielding error by Carlos Correa on the leadoff hitter (Brian Dozier) in an otherwise perfect eighth, and Luke Gregerson needed 12 pitches to retire the side in order to close the game, assisted by a peach of a fielding play on pinch hitter Oswaldo Arcia.

At the Plate:
The Astros scored in fewer innings than the Twins (two against four) but posted crooked numbers both times.  They also worked out a couple of new ways of scoring runners from third base - a wild pitch and a balk featured in this game - so their continued RISP difficulties (2-7 this game) were somewhat masked.

George Springer walked in the first, but went nowhere as Carlos Correa struck out and Colby Rasmus flew out to CF.  Carlos Gómez, who had a good night, doubled to deep CF with two outs in the second, but Alex Meyer struck out the side to strand him in scoring position.

The Astros entered the bottom of the third down 2-0.  Jason Castro (!) opened the inning with a home run into the Crawford Boxes - his first of the year.  The pitch was an 0-0 fastball down the pipe and low in the zone, Castro hit a fly-ball the other way, and the ball was intercepted by a member of the crowd sitting in the first row, bouncing back into play.  I can understand the fans' enthusiasm - a Castro home run ball is a rare beast in 2016 - but after an initial ruling on a home run, the call was upheld from New York. I think the correct call was made, and Jason Castro is on the board after his mammoth opposite field shot.

The Astros kept adding on in the third frame, which eventually resulted in Alex Meyer being lifted from the game.  José Altuve (0-3, BB, SB) walked and stole second before George Springer walked for the second time in two plate appearances.  Carlos Correa (1-4, 2B, 3K) followed by hammering a ground ball down the LF line, for a double that scored Altuve.  Springer stopped at third, but scored three pitches later when Alex Meyer missed down-and-in to Colby Rasmus (0-4), and a wild pitch got past Kurt Suzuki and went all the way to the backstop.

The Astros followed with another three-run frame in the fourth.  Carlos Gómez - who had a much better game with a 2-3, 2x2B night - doubled to the RF power-alley to lead off the frame, then Luis Valbeuna (0-2, K) sac-bunted him over to third.  Jason Castro (1-2, HR, BB) followed with a walk to put runners on the corners, then both runners advanced with lefty long-man Tommy Milone was called for a balk on a pickoff throw.  The rest of the scoring for the Astros happened when George Springer hammered a high fastball that exited the stadium by way of the left field railway tracks.  Tommy Milone tried to come inside with a 2-2 elevated fastball, Springer got a ball that leaked over the plate, and he didn't miss it.  No souvenirs for the Crawford Boxes from George Springer (1-2, HR, 2xBB) tonight, as he continues to put together a very solid season with both the bat and the glove.

Springer's trot round the bases happened to be the last time the Astros would record a baserunner for the night, but the damage was done.  In terms of the players not already mentioned: Astros DH's contributed little (Evan Gattis and Preston Tucker combined to go 0-4) as did Tyler White (0-4).

Turning Point:
Jason Castro singlehanded turned the Astros' season around by mashing a mammoth opposite field home run to open the scoring.  Castro's effort sent a loud and clear message to the Astros - especially guys like Carlos Gómez and Luis Valbuena.  The message was akin to something being written in 50ft high letters in the sky.  Perhaps something like "stop sucking" or "I have more home runs in 2016 then you, Carlos Gómez and Luis Valbeuna".  Or something.

As an aside, Castro also possess a higher OBP than Luis Valbuena, Carlos Gómez, Evan Gattis, Preston Tucker, Marwin González and Tyler White.  And Erik Kratz.  Take that, Castro haters!!

(I expect a torrent of "Castro is a bum" comments to be left below.  Please don't disappoint me!!)

Man of the Match:
Jason Castro!!  No... just kidding.  George Springer had a whale of a game, walking twice and hitting a long home run.  Springer has looked really good the last two-plus weeks.  Dating back to mid April (and excluding tonight) Springer has a .313/.371/.563 line.  If only he would stop trying to steal bases (1 from 5) then he could be in the midst of putting together a solid season.

/waits for the inevitable injury

Goat of the Game:
I kind of covered Collin McHugh's outing above, and I don't think it was goat-worthy.  He seemed a little unlucky.  Luis Valbuena, Tyler White and Evan Gattis were a combined 0-9 tonight, so they will do.

On the Morrow:
Another rubber game for Astros fans to get bitterly disappointed about...

Phil Hughes (1-4, 4.45) versus Mike Fiers (2-1, 4.97)

8 Eastern, 7 Central.