Chris Sale (13-2, 2.79) versus Doug Fister (8-4, 3.36)
So the Astros drew a tough assignment against Chris Sale of the White Sox tonight. Chris Sale has ridiculous numbers to reflect his freakish delivery to the plate, and while he has cooled from his amazing first dozen-or-so games to open the season, he is still as dominant as it gets around the American League at the moment. It was always going to be difficult to eek out the win in this one, but I can't help but feel that this was a game that the Astros let get away. They led twice in the game, with A.J. Hinch's inactivity largely responsible for losing the lead on the second occasion. No amount of yelling from a wintery lounge-room in the southern hemisphere was able to get Hinch to walk to the mound to pull his starter while the Astros still had the lead, so eventually the Astros' 2016 nominal-ace leaked his fastball arm-side and slurved his breaking pitch catching too much of the zone to the point where the Astros trailed, then lost.
A few late runs made the game close, but the Astros had spotted the White Sox too many easy innings at that point, so a 7-6 loss ensued.
On the Mound:
This game was all about Doug Fister and his inability to locate quality pitches. His fastball was continually missing arm-side-and-up, and his breaking pitches - whilst better - remained elevated a significant proportion of the time. Guys who struggle to dent 90 with their fastballs had better locate, and this was an afternoon where Fister wasn't doing that. The White Sox cashed in.
Fister started well enough, walking one but facing the minimum in the first inning. It was evident when he was pitching to Adam Eaton - the second batter of the game - that he was struggling with his command. In the second inning, Fister was unable to put away Todd Frazier, who hit a hard line-drive back up the middle for a lead-off single. Alex Avila followed with a walk, and with one out, Dioner Navarro hit a triple high off the RF bullpen fence, scoring both runners. That erased Houston's first lead of the night, which they had taken in the bottom of the first.
Continuing the second frame, Avisail García then walked, putting runners on the corners with one out. J.B. Shuck followed with a slow grounder to third base that Luis Valbuena came home on, erasing the runner on a tag play. Leadoff hitter Tim Anderson followed by grounding out to second base for the final out.
I was almost a little surprised to see Fister for the third inning, but he walked around a leadoff single and a two-out walk and two-out single to record a scoreless frame. Adam Eaton tried to score on a relatively hard-hit single through the 5.5 hole with two outs, but he was spectacularly erased at the plate (trying to jump over Evan Gattis) after he stumbled rounding third.
At this point, Fister had walked four, allowed four hits (for six total bases) but given up only two runs. I wondered whether he would come out for the fourth - he did, and J.B. Shuck hammered a middle-middle 2-1 fastball five rows back in RF with two outs. Entering the fourth, the Astros had a 4-2 lead, so this reduced the deficit to one. I wondered whether Fister would come out for the fifth, given he clearly had no command, and had struggled through a bunch of tough innings working around a bunch of baserunners.
Fister did come out for the fifth, and it was perhaps the decisive inning of the game. Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu both singled - BABIP jobs on grounders through the holes on the right and left sides respectfully. That put runners on first and second with no outs. Eaton was subsequently erased at third trying to advance with Evan Gattis The Catcher blocked a breaking ball in the dirt, and fired to third to nab the advancing runner. Alex Avila struck out for the second out, the Brett Laurie reached on an infield single that Correa fielded deep in the 5.5 hole, and fired to third to try and get the force. It was the only option available to him, but Valbuena didn't get to the bag quickly enough to record the force.
So that loaded the bases and brought up Dioner Navarro, a lefty-hitter against Fister who had tripled the first time up. At this point, I was practically screaming for Hinch to trot to the mound and bring in anyone else to try and maintain the Astros' lead. He didn't, and the rest is history as Navarro took a 2-2 curveball that caught too much of the zone, and popped it into RF, scoring two. That meant that that one-run lead was replaced with a one-run deficit, and Chris Sale had just settled in, so it looked ominous.
If Hinch had made a bad decision to leave Fister in, then Michael Feliz made it look much, much worse. Feliz relieved with two outs in the fifth, and immediately struck out Avisail García. He stayed on for the sixth, striking out two while facing the minimum. He stayed on for the seventh, striking out two while facing the minimum. He stayed on for the eighth, facing three batters, striking out two and allowing one infield single before yielding to Tony Sipp, having thrown 49 pitches, facing 10 hitters and striking out seven (7!!) of them.
At this point, it may be useful to look at the relative lines of Fister and Feliz. Fister went 4.2, allowed 14 baserunners (9 hits, 5 walks) and stuck out three. Feliz went three innings, striking out seven. I maintain that Feliz should have been on a lot earlier - perhaps as early as the third inning - and I swear that I was saying that at the time. Fister really struggled, and Hinch should have protected him more on a night where he had no command.
As good as Feliz's effort was, Tony Sipp ensured that Feliz would not record a scoreless outing. He relived Feliz, and allowed an 0-2 line drive to LF on a mid-thigh fastball away to ex-Stro J.B. Shuck. The ball got over Handsome Jake's handsome head, and clattered around in the LF power alley, where the Crawford Boxes meet the visitor's 'pen. Gómez fielded it, and knocked it around some more, playing it into a triple for Shuck. The Astros challenged the 'safe' call on the tag, looked to have it overturned, but bizarrely the Office of Random Decisions in New York declined to overturn it, declaring that Shuck had beaten the throw, despite reasonably clear evidence that he hadn't. Shuck then scored when Tim Anderson doubled into the LF corner, resulting in another vital insurance run. Sigh.
Pat Neshek got the ninth, and he needed 28 pitches to record a scoreless frame, allowing only a leadoff double.
At the Plate:
This recap has gotten waaaaay too long already, but some dissection of Hinch's decision making (or lack thereof) was necessary. On the offensive side for the Astros, they looked really good at times against a tough pitcher. After the incredible José Altuve hit a home run into the Crawford Boxes in the first, the Astros managed to put together a three-run frame in the third. This was due to a little bit of BABIP luck, but also some solid situational hitting. Danny Worth (0-2, BB) walked to lead off the frame, then Handsome Jake bunted one down the first base line that Chris Sale was a little casual on, resulting in a base hit. George Springer lined out to CF, but Worth tagged and advanced, putting runners on the corners with one out. MarGo then sac-bunted to first base - he nearly popped up, but it was a soft bunt into the air with a lot of backspin, so it settled nicely on the grass and stopped fair, allowing Worth to score from third. José Altuve followed with a line-drive single that Marisnick (1-3) scored on (with Altuve advancing to second), and Carlos Correa followed with a single into RF on a fastball away that scored Altuve. That brought up Carlos Gómez, and he successfully killed the rally while screwing himself into the ground for the final out.
Sale settled down after that. If anything, many of the big hits in the third inning were on elevated pitches, and he resumed pounding the bottom of the zone for the next few frames. The Astros went in order in the fourth, a one-out single was the only action in the fifth, two strikeouts punctuated a sixth when the side went in order, and Sale faced the minimum while striking out one in the seventh. The Astros eventually chased Sale in the eighth at just-over 100 pitches when George Springer (1-4) singled to left on a line drive off a breaking ball, and MarGo (1-3) reached on a two-base error when Todd Frazier had a hard grounder nick off his glove, and roll all the way into the corner. That put two runners in scoring position with no outs, and José Altuve (2-3, HR, 3 RBI) immediately drove a sac-fly to medium-RF off the relief pitcher Nate Jones that Springer scored on. MarGo didn't advance, but it didn't matter as Carlos Correa (1-4) struck out on ball 4 - an eye-level fastball - and Carlos Gómez (0-4) grounded to short for the final out.
In the ninth, A.J. Reed pinch-hit with two outs against David Robertson. With a 1-0 count, Reed got a mid-thigh four-seam fastball away, and he got around it a little, and hit a high fly ball just into the Astros' bullpen in RF for his first ML extra-base hit - a home run. That narrowed the deficit to one, and brought Colby Rasmus up as a pinch hitter, but he ran his career record to 0-15 off David Robertson by striking out on four pitches.
To my eye - and look, I am not really qualified to have an opinion here - the Turning Point was the two innings after the Astros took the lead in the bottom of the third. Fister clearly didn't have it tonight, but Hinch kept running him out there, hoping that he would stagger through five innings, and then he could turn it over to the bullpen. And, to be fair, Feliz in the sixth, then the trio of Giles, Gregerson and Harris would have been ideal. But the 'pen is relatively rested, Feliz and Feldman were both available for long relief duties, and Devenski has not had a multi-inning outing for a wee while, so I think Hinch was a little shy in going to his relievers. In the two innings that he pitched after the Astros took the lead, Fister was not able to post a scoreless frame, and it cost the Astros the game.
Man of the Match:
Michael Feliz posted a career high in strikeouts. And A.J. Reed is awesome.
Goat of the Game:
No prizes for guessing this one. The manager. I don't often yell at the TV set - not as much as I did in the Bo Porter days, anyhow - but I did today. Sigh.
On the Morrow:
Jose Quintana (5-8, 3.18) versus Collin McHugh (5-5, 4.58)
2 Eastern, 1 Central.