Chris Sale (8-0, 1.67) versus Collin McHugh (4-3, 5.58)
The Astros, fresh off taking their first road series of the year, went for their first sweep of the year against the White Sox (the earlier games were wonderfully recapped by Jexas here and here). Standing in the way was 6' 6" Chris Sale, who has threatened to put together a Cy Young Season for a few years now. Since making his debut in 2010 as a 21 year-old, his year-to-year ERA's read 1.93, 2.79, 3.05, 3.07, 2.17 and 3.41. So this was never going to be an easy game, but on the line was the first sweep of the season and a three (3!) game win streak which would blow past the previous season high of two (2!!).
Things haven't been great for the Astros. They really could have had a five-game win-streak going, after losing two very winnable games in Boston which, in turn, occurred after they opened the series by getting shelled - the only non-competitive game of a tough series. They are playing better baseball, especially on the pitching-and-defence side of the equation, but they still seem to be remarkably un-clutch. It is kind of remarkable that the Astros, at the time of report, lag behind a 23-17 Mariners team by only seven games, and the Fightin' Ramgers (who may be finally getting a domed stadium) by 5.5 games.
So the Astros were unable to overcome a dominant complete-game pitching performance from Chris Sale, narrowly losing by a score of 2-1. That drops the Astros to 17-25 through just over one-quarter of the season. Things, clearly, need to improve, but at least they seem to be trending the right way for now. Interesting night, too, because Evan Gattis made his Astros debut as a starting catcher.
On the Bump:
Chris Sale was pretty good - more on that later - so Collin McHugh needed to be perfect. McHugh couldn't quite manage perfection, however, thanks to being unable to solve the riddle of that offensive behemoth Jerry Sands. Sands played a key role in both runs being scored for the White Sox... and of course he did, thanks to the 28 year-old living up to his season slash-line of .237/.293/.316. That isn't good, but it also isn't so bad that the Astros wouldn't take that line from their All-Star CF right now (who is currently residing on the DL).
McHugh cruised through the first two batters, sitting both Adam Eaton and Carlos Sánchez down on strikeouts. Jose Abreu - who, back in the day, was nearly an Astro - climbed into a low fastball down the middle, and hammered it deep to RF. George Springer has had a good season, especially with regards to non-LED light-bank affected defence - and he made a great play at the wall, pulling a likely home-run ball back from the RF bullpen to keep the score tied.
The second inning was cruising along ok after Todd Frazier singled to shallow RF as the lead-off hitter. The hit was a slow roller off the end of the bat on a two-strike curve against the shift on a pitch away, and Altuve was unable to get enough on the throw to retire Frazier at first base (after he made a lot of ground, and spun to throw). McHugh retired the next two (including Jimmy Rollins flailing on a sharp curveball), but Frazier was credited with stealing third base when McHugh bounced a curveball that got away from Gattis. Anyhow, on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, offensive behemoth Jerry Sands singled off the end of the bat on a two-strike curveball down and away, just over the head of a leaping (and short!) Altuve, scoring Frazier. When I talk about Astros starters getting BABIP-ed into oblivion, this is what I mean - two weak singles on two-strike pitches resulting in a run.
McHugh needs credit for settling down, and retiring the next nine in order, before walking Alex Avila with two outs in the fifth. Austin Jackson went down swinging at a perfectly-painted fastball away to end that frame. McHugh then had to work around a leadoff "triple" in the sixth. He threw three straight balls to Adam Eaton, then came back with a strike. On a 3-1 count, he threw one of his baby-sliders down in the zone, but in the middle of the plate. Eaton lined it to CF, Marisnick seemed to misread it, and the ball clanged off his glove and got behind him. When all the dust had cleared, Eaton was on third base with no outs. McHugh bounced back by sandwiching a strikeout around two fly-outs to Tony Kemp in LF to maroon Eaton at third.
If McHugh was BABIP-ed to death in the second inning, it happened again in the seventh. Jimmy Rollins reached on a single with one out - he squibbed a shot down the third base line off the end of the bat for a 90-foot single. The shift was on, but I am not sure there was a play even if it hadn't have been. McHugh, for the third time tonight, allowed a critical single on a two-strike curveball down-and-away, and out of the zone. Rollins stole second when Gattis couldn't glove another curveball in the dirt, with Jerry Sands (him, again!) at the plate. Sands followed with a single to LF - this one was another baby slider that was thigh-high and down the middle, and Sands hit a hard line drive through the 5.5 hole for a single. Rollins was only able to advance to third, but standing 90-feet from home is better than 180-feet from home because of the capacity for sac-flies, and woodenchaknowit, Alex Avila got one deep enough to LF on the next pitch to put the game out of reach for the Astros. And what a pity, because in the top half of the next frame, Gattis mashed a home run to the LF power alley to score the Astros' only run.
Scotty-Feldman-the-reliever got the mop-up duties in the eight, with the Astros trailing 2-1. He cleaned up without problem, retiring the 1-2-3 hitters on 11 pitches. Feldman struck out one in one inning in relief of McHugh, who struck out 8 in seven innings, and if three two-strike curveballs were a little lower or a little further away, the Astros could have beaten Chris Sale and swept the series.
At the Plate:
Chris Sale has had a good year thus far. He is eight-and-zero in eight (!) starts and has thrown nearly 60 innings in that time (nearly 7.5IP per start). He leads the league in complete games (2), shutouts (1), WHIP (0.758), and K/BB (5.30). He sits second in fWAR to fellow Sock Jose Quintana (who carries an ERA of 1.54), 2.1 to 1.9. So Sale seems to be putting it all together, as we have always suspected he can.
Sale set the side down in order in the first, third, fourth, fifth and seventh frames. Elsewhere, he scattered 4 hits and no walks. Exactly one of the hits was for extra-bases, and that was a home run. He struck out nine. A tall lefty with power stuff, coming from a low arm slot must be murder on lefty hitters, and the Astros were forced to field two of them today (Luis Valbuena (0-3, 2K) and Tony Kemp (0-3)).
The Astros never had more than one runner per inning, and only Evan Gattis managed to get past first base during a leisurely trot around the bases. That occurred in the top of the eighth - after Gattis earlier singled off Sale - on the first pitch of the frame. The pitch was a well-placed fastball down-and-away, and Gattis must have guessed right, because he mashed it into the LF power alley for a no doubt home run. Normally Gattis (2-3, HR) grounds low fastballs to the left side, but he managed to elevate this one, and turned into a deep enough fly-ball to get out.
In the ninth, with the Sox nursing a one-run lead, George Springer (1-4, K) hit a line drive over the shortstop and into LF for a one-out single. Carlos Correa (0-4, K) followed with a fly out, and that brought Tyler White to the plate with the game-tying run on first. White saw four pitches - all strikes - fouling off one. The last "strike" was an attempt at a back door breaking ball that crossed the front of home plate in the lefty-hitters' batting box, missing the zone by (according to Brooks) about eight inches. Home plate ump Adam Hamari must have had dinner reservations, because he punched Tyler White out, then immediately turned around and scuttled off to the umpires' room for a shower. Cruel way to end a tough night for Tyler (0-4, 3K), who understandably scuffled.
Jose Altuve (1-4, K) had the other hit.
Pick a two-strike curveball that resulted in a single in either the second or the seventh.
Man of the Match:
I guess Evan Gattis needs some kudos. He returned to catching tonight to stack the lineup with righties, and he had a good night. Perhaps a couple of missed blocks in the dirt, but overall, he did fine whilst wearing the Tools of Ignorance, and he did better at the plate. How about them hot hitting Astros catchers, huh?
Goat of the Game:
Sometimes, you just get beat. This was such a night. No Goat.
On the Morrow:
Ramgers come to town, fresh off a losing sweep at the hands of the A's. A couple of bullpen meltdowns in there, too. Rougned Odor may have to sit a couple of games this series, too. Anyhow...
Colby Lewis (2-0, 3.12) versus Lance McCullers Jr (0-0, 9.64)
8 Eastern, followed by fireworks.