Michael Bruce Fiers (5-3, 4.41) versus Miguel González (1-3, 5.17)
So the Astros roll back into town in time for a Big-'n-Bright Friday Night after sweeping the Angels on the road in Anaheim after taking the first two against the Royals in Kansas City. That meant a five-from-six road trip, plus a six-from-six record against the Angels over the last 11 days. All of that is good if you are an Astros fan, and they now find themselves in the middle of AL wild-card scrap, holding the second slot by themselves, and trialling the Red Sox by a half-game. The only reason that we aren't talking about the Astros challenging for the AL West lead is because of the ridiculous clutchiness of the Dallas Ramgers, and wouldnchaknow, the Ramgers won in extras against the AL-worst Twinkies tonight to maintain their division lead at 8.5 games.
So, tonight, the Astros squeaked out a tight lead heading into the later innings before adding on late, and shutting out the White Sox. Astros win, 5-0. How did it all happen?? Read on for more!!
On the Mound:
Fiers was plenty effective while working around baserunners, and making big pitches in big spots. He logged his best start of the year (accounting for both runs allowed combined with length) in holding the White Sox down with his mix of high fastballs, 12-6 curveballs, with the occasional splitter / change thrown in.
Overall, Fiers went six innings, allowing four hits and two walks, while striking out four. He retired the side in the first and third frames, and pitched out of relatively serious jams in the second (runners on second and third with two outs) and fourth (leadoff double) innings. The second inning was perhaps the pivotal frame of the game - Todd Frazier stung a 2-2 fastball away back up the middle for a leadoff single. The next two batters went in order (one on a strikeout) before Avisail García hammered a deep drive to LF. The ball looked destined to leave the park, but it ended up hitting just below the yellow line to the CF side of the Crawford Boxes, where the line is at it's highest. It stayed in the park by around a vertical foot, rebounding hard off the wall. Colby Rasmus plays balls well off the wall, and this was no exception, so he fired a quick throw to the cutoff man that meant Todd Frazier had to hold up at third base. García cruised into second, putting two runners in scoring position with two outs.... but Tyler Saladino followed with a tame line-drive that Carlos Gómez pocketed without difficulty to end the frame.
Frazier was the only runner to reach third for the White Sox on the night. Ken Giles relieved Fiers to start the seventh facing the 6-8 hitters, and he retired them in order, striking out two, both on sliders nowhere near the zone (having been set up by fastballs). Luke Gregerson got the eighth, and not wanting to be upstaged, retired the three batters he faced in order, striking out two (including Jose Abreu on three pitches). Chris Devenski was less dominant, allowing a one-out ground-rule double that was over the head of George Springer in RF, followed by and Alex Avila walk. That brought up the last batter of the night - Avisail García - and he grounded to third base, allowing Valbuena to turn a 5-3 double-play to end the game. The Dragon recorded another scoreless outing, lowering his ERA to 2.18.
At the Plate:
Not much to report from the offensive side of the game for the Astros in the first third of the game. The first time through the order, Miguel González set the Astros down without allowing a baserunner, while striking out two. A number of the outs were hard-hit balls right at fielders, and after three innings, the game was fair racing along. Well, racing along as much as a Mike Fiers - Miguel González contest can... they are both as slow as molasses when they get runners on.
The first run of the game scored in the Astros' half of the fourth. George Springer wore a 2-2 pitch off the back of his left leg leading off the frame. Luis Valbuena followed with a five-pitch walk, despite many of the pitches looking like strikes. The strike-zone was... uh... tight, while seemingly favouring the White Sox. That brought José Altuve (0-4) to the plate, and he GIDP'd back to the mound - a slick fielding play by Miguel González started to the twin killing. However, Springer survived the double-play, and he was standing at third when a 2-0 fastball ran inside on Carlos Correa. Correa was swinging, however, and the ball blew him up inside, resulting in a tiny bloop toward shortstop. Tim Anderson, playing short for the Sox, elected to let it bounce, and it must have had a heap of spin on it because when it bounced, the ball lurched forward and sideways. Anderson couldn't make the play, Springer scored from third, and the Astros took a 1-0 lead.
The score stayed at 1-0 for the next few innings. A.J. Reed (1-2, BB) singled down the RF line with two outs in the fifth - the ball either hit the first base bag, or Jose Abreu misplayed it badly. Regardless, it was scored as his first ML hit. More scoring in the seventh inning - Carlos Correa led off with 2-1 hard grounder to Tyler Saladino at third. Saladino made a great diving play, then gunned it over to Abreu in time, who let the low throw get under his glove. It was scored an error on Saladino, but really it was all on Abreu, and Correa (1-3, BB) took first. Two batters later, Carlos Gómez hammered a 1-2 fastball that was running inside off the archway above the Crawford Boxes for a two-run shot.
The Astros weren't finished there, either. Chris Beck got the assignment for the ninth in relief of González, and he was scored upon twice. George Springer (1-3, HBP) just beat out an infield single to third base with one out, then Luis Valbuena (1-3, 2B, BB) doubled into the LF gap to drive him in. A great read from Springer on the bases, who advanced at a jog then throttled up when he realised the ball wasn't going to be caught. Colby Rasmus (1-4) singled with two outs to drive Valbuena home for the fifth run of the night, before Carlos Gómez (1-4, HR) went down hacking on three pitches, looking more like April Gómez than July Gómez. Sigh.
I guess the way that both starters opened up, the Turning Point was always likely to be the first team to score. And tonight, it was the Astros on a ridiculous squibber that landed just short of the outfield dirt. Springer was on third, and he scored when the ball took a nasty hop sideways, eluding the fielding efforts of Tim Anderson, and otherwise defensively solid shortstop. Alan Ashby referred to it as a "balata bounce", presumably referring to the type of golf ball that was a staple of the 1980's and 1990's tournament golf. It was covered in a thin layer of balata rubber, which cut up horribly when hit cleanly, but resulted in a heap of backspin. The introduction of the Titleist Professional and later the Pro-V1 around the millennium killed the Balata balls for good. I still have a dozen of them at home (plus a couple in my practise bag) as collectors items.
Man of the Match:
Mike Fiers and Carlos Gómez. Both guys who had struggled a little this year. Both guys that Luhnow and Hinch have allowed to play out of their slumps. Solid nights from both, with Gómez in particular hitting into a number of hard-hit outs over the last week or so.
Goat of the Game:
We don't get to beat up on José Altuve much around here, but tonight his 31-game OBP streak came to an end during an 0-4 night. Altuve is incredible - he has continued to improve since his great 2014 and 2015 seasons, but tonight he gets to take the Goat home.
On the Morrow:
Tough match-up for the 'Stros.
Chris Sale (13-2, 2.79) versus Doug Fister (8-4, 3.36)
4 Eastern, 3 Central.