Matt Shoemaker (5-9, 4.08) versus Lance McCullers (4-4, 3.61)
The Astros started a six-game homestand including visits from the Angels and the Yankees, before heading on the road to Detroit to finish the month of July. The post-All Star Break games have been reasonably kind to them thus far, after they split a six-game road trip to Seattle and Oakland, as all committed Astros fans will already know. Apologies about the lack of game-recap-ery recently, but things have been crazy busy and sleep has been the main asset that I need to trade for prior to the August 1 deadline. For those who are interested, I remain hopeful that I can recap this homestand in it's entirety.
While talking about my lack of writing, I had planned to pen an article titled "the Collapse Potential of the Ramgers" prior to the All Star Break. This was around the time the Ramgers held a 10-game lead, and possessed the best record in the AL. The areas of collapse were obvious - they weren't outhitting their opponents by all that much (leaving them prone to simple regression on that front), they lost 60% of their starting rotation to the DL inside of one week (approximately) and their good bullpen arms were clearly ahead of schedule in terms of appearances and innings pitched for the year. What has happened since then is the Ramgers have plummeted, which included a sweep at the hands of the Angels at the same time the Astros were losing two of three in Oakland. As you could imagine, they were slightly out-hit, and struggled with pitching in both the rotation and the bullpen. I wish I had gotten that article posted - I would have looked like a genius!
So tonight, the Astros faced a tough assignment against the best of the Angels' starters, Matt Shoemaker. They countered with the mercurial (but still tough to hit) Lance McCullers, in what would prove to be an interesting matchup. The Astros scored in the fifth and seventh inning, which proved eventually to be enough for a 2-1 victory. Meanwhile, the Ramgers sent Yu Darvish to the bump, who allowed a single run in each of the first three innings, laying the foundation for an eventual 3-1 Ramgers loss. That drops the division lead to 2.5 games, and it looks like a couple of strong series is all that sits between the Astros and the division lead. This could all happen quite quickly.
Excuse me while I rush off and find something wooden to touch.
On the Mound:
I dunno about most Astros fans, but I find Lance McCullers somewhat frustrating and, at times, difficult to watch. He is kind of like owning a serious supercar - like an Audi R8 or some kind of McLaren - while living in a street with a bunch of speed bumps. Whilst being fully aware that the car can crack 200-mph, it is hopeless because every time you leave home, the chassis keeps getting dealt to by the speed bumps, which would frustrate the heck out of me. But get it on the open road, and the car would be a wonderful drive.
That said, McCullers recorded arguably the best outing of his career (and definitely the best outing of the season) tonight. He has only pitched later into the game on only one occasion in his career. The only run that was credited to him scored after he departed the game. He generally kept runners off base, despite having recorded a WHIP of 1.6 so far this season. He mowed ten Angels down via the strikeout (including 3 strikeouts of Mike Trout) and kept the ball on the ground (12 groundouts versus 2 fly-ball outs). No extra-base hits were logged against him, as all hits were on seeing-eye grounders. He struck out the side in the eighth, including a gem of a swinging strike against a changeup down-and-in to retire Yunel Escobar. He touched 97 on a handful of occasions, which is fabulous.
The funky stuff mentioned in the above paragraph occurred despite a handful of negatives. McCullers still struggled with fastball command, almost entirely unable to command that pitch to the glove-side of the plate. He threw over 50% breaking balls again - which is extremely unusual for a starter, and more like something Luke Gregerson would do (actually, Gregerson would be well north of 50% in terms of percentages of breaking pitches). Perhaps the scary thing is that McCullers has considerable room for improvement, and that improvement could occur quickly, meaning the Astros could do the equivalent of adding an ace at the trade deadline without having to make a trade.
The key innings for McCullers were his first and last innings. He found himself in trouble early - Yunel Escobar and Kole Calhoun both managed seeing-eye singles through the right side of the infield, putting runners on first and third with no outs. Calhoun also took second on a breaking ball in the dirt with no outs. But McCullers bounced back to strike out Mike Trout on a 2-2 breaking ball before enticing Albert Pujols into a grounder to third base for the second out. That was the Turning Point of the game, as Valbuena aggressively attacked the grounder while Escobar broke for home. Valbuena was in a great position to fire home, and he did so, navigating a narrow corridor to Castro's glove, who applied the tag, erasing the runner. McCullers completed the scoreless frame by getting Daniel Nava to pop out to deep shortstop for the final out.
From there, McCullers was nasty. Andrelton Simmons led off with a single in the second, but was later victimised in a 6-4-3 double play. Kole Calhoun walked with two outs in the third. Jett Bandy singled with one out in the fifth, then advanced on a passed ball, but was stranded on a 3-6-1 double-play. The next nine Angels went down in order, including McCullers striking out the side on 13 pitches in the eighth.
Sitting at 105 pitches and nursing a two-run lead, A.J. Hinch allowed McCullers to trot out and take the mound to start the ninth. It didn't go well - he managed only four strikes in the inning, walking Calhoun and Trout to put the game-tying run on first, and place the 'stros in a bit of a jam. Will Harris came on to relieve, and it is not like he has been Mr Shut Down recently, either. But Harris did ok, getting Pujols to pop out to right for the first out, and enticing Daniel Nava into a ground ball up the middle for the second out (Correa may a great diving play and shovel to second for the force). Andrelton Simmons attacked the first pitch he saw (a high fastball) and singled through the 5.5 hole, scoring the only run of the game for the Angels. Harris then knuckled down to strike out Ji-Man Choi for the last out, preserving the one-run win for McCullers and the Astros.
At the Plate:
Not a massive amount to write here, as the Astros offence was restricted to seven hits and two walks. I was watching the game, and I thought Shoemaker was vulnerable early because he was struggling to locate his splitter with any conviction. Shoemaker, like McCullers threw his best pitch around 50% of the time, while mixing in a couple of different fastballs and the occasional slider.
A MarGo (1-4) single was the only action of the first, although the Correa at-bat later that inning was quite enthralling, with Correa striking out looking on a full count. Carlos Gómez was hit by a 3-0 pitch in the second, but he was the only baserunner of that frame. The Astros went in order in the third, with the most remarkable out of that inning recorded when MarGo was called out on batter's inference when he ran into his own drag bunt down the first base line. In the fourth, José Altuve led off with a single, but didn't advance as the next three were retired on balls hit in the air.
The bottom of the fifth marked the first scoring play of the inning. Carlos Gómez led off with a swinging strikeout, which brought up DH Preston Tucker. On a 1-1 count, Tucker (1-3, 3B) drove a perfectly located fastball down and away, hitting a hard line drive that landed just short of the RF side of Tal's Hill. Mike Trout was shaded the other way against Tucker, and therefore had to run back to Tucker's pull-side. He was unable to make the over-head grab, the ball took a huge bounce, hitting just below the yellow line above Tal's Hill (and narrowly eluding the hands of a fan who was leaning over the fence). It took Trout a while to corral the ball, and by the time the infielders were involved in the play, Tucker was standing on third base. Jason Castro was the next hitter, and he did what quality hitters do, hitting a line drive into RF that narrowly beat the glove of Gregorio Petit at second base, who had been playing in. That scored Tucker, and gave the Astros a narrow lead.
After an uneventful sixth, the Astros added a vital insurance run in the seventh. Carlos Gómez (1-2, HBP) reached on a 1-out bunt that was hard enough to beat the pitcher, and soft enough to mean that the infielders on the right side had no play. He stole second and advanced to third on a groundout. Gómez was initially awarded home on a balk, when Shoemaker threw to third base out of the windup. The umps got together, and decided that Shoemaker made the throw after stepping off, which killed the play because third base was not attended by Escobar. Alan Ashby thought that Shoemaker had moved to start his delivery before stepping off, but it was all moot when Jason Castro (1-2, BB) worked a tough walk, and George Springer (1-4) took the first pitch he saw off reliever Joe Smith, hammering a hard line drive through the 5.5 hole and into LF to score Gómez. A solid two-out bit of hitting for the Astros.
In the bottom of the eighth, José Altuve (2-4) led off with a grounder up the middle that Gregorio Petit made a stunning grab and throw on, but Altuve hustled up the first-base line and beat it out. Next pitch, Altuve was caught stealing second on a wonderfully placed throw by Jett Bandy. Luis Valbuena (0-3, BB) followed with a walk, but Rasmus struck out to end the eighth.
Turning Point: Not often that a Turning Point occurs with one out in the game, but in this one it did. Read above for an account of how Valbuena threaded a throw past the advancing Yunel Escobar into the mitt of Jason Castro to nab the runner at home plate.
Man of the Match: Clearly, Lance McCullers gets the nod here for his fabulous outing in which he recorded strikeouts, limited baserunners and kept the ball on the ground - all without much in the way of fastball command. Jason Castro also gets some credit here - aside from the abovementioned tag in the first, he singled in Preston Tucker in the fifth, and worked a vital walk to chase Matt Shoemaker and give George Springer the chance to drive in Carlos Gómez in the seventh. Springer's RBI ended up being the winning run of the game.
Goat of the Game: Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus both went 0-4 with 2 strikeouts. Truthfully, Correa's at-bats early in the game were riveting viewing, but he was unable to come through. Not sure if it is goat-worthy, but hey, we need to appoint someone.
Jered Weaver (8-7, 5.02) versus Collin McHugh (6-6, 4.25)
7 Eastern, 6 Central.