Kevin Gausman (0-1, 2.70) versus Lance McCullers (0-1, 5.91)
Sweeeeeep!! Record 2016 win streak!! (Three whole games!!!) Strikeouts!!! Solid day for the Astros, as at last they look like they have something cookin'. Springer, Valbuena and the Astros 'pen remained hot as they bested the Orioles by a score of 4-2. Couple of concerns, though. Lance McCullers still looks like he still struggles to hit the side of a barn from 25 paces with his fastball, Ken Giles gave up his first run in a while, and the Astros still aren't a rally team, scoring all their runs via the long ball. In fact, great game for fans of the Three True Outcomes: the sides combined for four home runs, 28 strikeouts and 8 walks.
And as an additional statistical oddity, the Astros managed to strike out 52 Orioles over the three-game series - the most ever for an major-league three-game series, besting the 47 Twins struck out by Nationals pitchers earlier in the year. The Astros bested the previous record by five. And the Astros became the first team to strike out 15 in three consecutive games. And that is in the whole history of MLB. Wow.
For those interested in the standings (which is all of us), this win improves the Astros to 20-28, tying them for last in the AL West with the Athletics. They head west to play the Angels next, who are a near identical side in record (21-26) and run differential (-22 versus -29). If the Astros are going to make a move, this seems like a great time to rattle off a serious win streak, else they may be trading talent away well prior to the deadline.
On the Mound:
The assertion that Lance McCullers has swing-and-miss stuff isn't in doubt. However, the various articles that documented his rise last year talked about the development of a third pitch (a changeup) and improved command and control as being the keys to his jumping to the Major Leagues. McCullers was mostly effective tonight while being entirely wild and inefficient with his pitches, and his success was mostly owing to the fact that he has nasty, filthy stuff that is occasionally near the strike zone.
I jest a little, but how is this for a confusing line?? Five innings pitched, 1 lone hit (a solo home run), 1 run/earned run, 6 (six!) walks and 10 (ten!) strikeouts. 108 pitches. So, on average, each inning McCullers struck out two of the hitters he faced, walking a little over one, and throwing nearly 22 pitches. Hmmmm. That may not be sustainable going forward.
The first inning was typical of his issues: walk, walk, runner-advancing grounder, K, grounder to end the frame. In the second inning, McCullers lost his no-hitter when Castro set up down-and-away to Mark Trumbo on the first pitch of the at-bat. McCullers missed by... I dunno... the width and height of the strike zone, and instead of getting the lower outside corner, he got the upper inside corner. The next thing the ball touched was the railroad tracks above the Crawford Boxes. That tied the game at 1's, but McCullers immediately bounced back and set down the next four batters in order, striking out three of them.
The next baserunner was Manny Machado with one out in the third, who walked three times against McCullers tonight. However, he couldn't advance. Matt Weiters led off the fourth on a Tyler White missed catch error after an awesome barehanded play by Luis Valbuena, but the next two batters struck out before Hyun Soo Kim completed the stranding mission by flying out to left. McCullers got to pitch the fifth frame, and he left the bases loaded after a lead-off walk, a one-out walk and a two-out walk. A four-pitch strikeout of Matt Weiters ended the frame - the pitch was an 87mph breaking ball, perfectly located down and over the plate.
Then, Michael Feliz came on for two strong innings, allowing only a sixth-inning two-out single in two scoreless frames. He struck out four - three swinging - including Manny Machado. Will Harris got the eighth, and he allowed only a one-out single, but was greatly assisted by Handsome Jake who made a couple of great catches in CF, one slightly to the LF side of Tal's Hill, and the other well into the RF power alley.
In defensive contrast to that, Ken Giles came out for the ninth - Luke Gregerson has been worked hard lately - and he immediately allowed an infield single on a play that could have made by José Altuve. A couple of outs were then recorded in the air before Manny Machado hammered a deep drive to RF, over the head of Springer and onto the warning track. Springer could have made the play and may have lost it in the lights or the roof, so Giles again wasn't helped by his defense, plus completing the catch would have ended the game. It didn't matter too much in the final wash-up, because Chris Davis grounded out for the final out three pitches later. Giles didn't get the stellar defensive work that Harris was the beneficiary of the inning prior, and as a result, he allowed his first earned run for a while.
At the Plate:
Astros leadoff hitters have been great in 2016, collectively hitting .326/.414/.568 entering the night, which is an approximate line for José Altuve (.312/.398/.554). But Springer, much like he did last year, blossomed after he was moved into a leadoff spot a few nights ago, and he continued that tonight. Springer opened the Astros' offense with a leadoff home run - he got a 1-0 fastball mid-thigh and inside, and he managed to turn on it, and pound it off the façade about the Crawford Boxes. That gave the Astros an early 1-0 lead that they would give back in the top of the second frame.
The rest of the side went down in order, but more runs scored in the second. After an Evan Gattis K, Tyler White (0-1, 2xBB) worked a walk on a 3-1 count to take first. The suddenly hot Luis Valbuena - he has his timing down - took a 2-2 middle-middle fastball, turned on it, and hammered it into the lower deck of the RF bleachers. Valbuena has homered in every game of this series, and the Orioles probably wished they have given him the Barry Bonds treatment over the last three nights, which proves how amazingly weird the game of baseball is given how his season has gone thus far.
So that gave the Astros a 3-1 lead. Altuve singled as the only action in the third - his first hit for a while - and Valbuena (2-3, HR) reached on an infield single in the fourth. In the fifth, George Springer was at it again - he worked the count from 0-2 from fourth pitches to 3-2, then got a hanging backup slider as the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Springer hammered it, hitting his second home run off the wall above the Boxes of the night. That took the lead to 4-1 which, thankfully, was enough, because the Astros O kind of went to sleep, sprinkling a walk, a double and a reached-on-error over the next three innings. Handsome Jake doubled (1-3), while Correa and Rasmus both went 0-4 with 3K. If that looks like a hole at the 3-4 slots in the order, consider that Gattis (at 5) went 0-4 with 2K. Hole bigger!! Thank goodness for Springer and Valbuena.
McCullers had an interesting night, working around six walks. His biggest challenge came in the fifth (and final) frame, when he walked the bases loaded with two outs. The radio guys were a little surprised that McCullers was given a shot at Matt Weiters with the game-tying run on second, but Hinch remained in the dugout and let him try and work his way out of his own mess. Four pitches - two of which were breaking balls - later, Weiters went down swinging on a great pitch just below the zone. That stranded three baserunners, and allowed the 'pen to take over with a two-run lead.
Man of the Match:
George Springer went 2-4 with a combined 840-odd feet of home runs. For the purposes of the MoTM, we will ignore the strikeout and the defensive miscue that resulted in a run being added to Giles' ledger. Like 2015, Springer has thrived in the leadoff spot, where (entering tonight) he has a .299/.385/.448 triple slash for his career.
Goat of the Game:
The 3-4-5 hitters, who hit an Oriole-esque 0-12 with 8 K's.
On the Morrow:
Westward travel. The Astros are in LA, facing the Angels.
Mike Fiers (3-2, 4.35) versus Matt Shoemaker (2-5, 6.81)
10 Eastern, 9 Central.
This may be a high scoring affair.