Monday, November 6, 2017

The ten most pivotal games of the (regular) season

We've got a few months to fully digest what happened this season and, trust me, we will do exactly that. Player recaps, farm system recaps, long reads, history lessons, all of that will be more fun after what the Astros did on remember, remember the 1st of November. For now, though, here are what I (with some assists from Twitter) find to be the ten most pivotal regular season games of the 2017 season, in chronological order:

1. 5 April. 5-3 win vs Seattle.

Having taken the first two games of the series, and the season, Charlie Morton made his Astros debut on April 5. He faced James Paxton and, while Morton pitched well (6IP, 5H/2ER, 4K:2BB) James Paxton started a season of near-dominance over the Astros. It was tied 2-2 at the end of the 9th, and still tied at the end of the 12th. Hinch called on Jandel Gustave to pitch the top of the 13th, who promptly walked the first three batters he saw. Brad Peacock walked in the go-ahead run before retiring the side. The Astros came to bat and a Gattis walk paired with an Aoki single brought up George Springer, who walked it off with a three-run home run. This was the first of 43 come-from-behind victories and, if you recall, the first time this season that things got Weird.

2. 10 April. 6-0 loss at Seattle.

What's notable about a 6-0 early-season loss to Seattle? It's not that the loss dropped the Astros to 4-4, and visions of 2016 rang through our domes. It wasn't that James Paxton dominated the Astros for the second time in five days. No, this game is notable because it was the first time Morton threw a 99mph sinker. The Astros pounced on Morton early last off-season, drawing ridicule for giving Morton - who had thrown just 17.1IP in 2016 - a 2-year/$14m deal with incentives, allegedly thanks to his spin rate. Armed with the Suitcase of Information chained to his wrist, Morton dove into his mechanics and began a season of unheralded velocity. The fastest pitch he threw in his career (2016's four starts notwithstanding) was at 97.16 mph, on October 2, 2010. He threw at least one pitch with more velocity than that in 19 of his 29 starts, post-season included. So no, that April 10 start wasn't great, though only three of those Seattle runs were charged to Morton. But April 10 is when we should have realized that this was a different Charlie F. Morton.

3. 2 May. 8-7 win vs. Arlington.

Coming in to the first series of the season against the in-state rival Rangers, the Astros were 17-9 and had a 3.5-game lead on Anaheim and a six-game lead on East Fort Worth. The Rangers got off to a 5-0 lead after Mike Fiers, who to this point was still Mike Fiers and not Mike F. Fiers before he would go back to being Mike Fiers, allowed four home runs. The Astros started to chip away. Altuve hit a 2-run home run. Marwin Gonzalez led off the 5th with a solo home run to make it 5-3. In the bottom of the 8th, a Beltran double, Altuve walk, and a Gattis single brought up Marwin, who hooked it down the right field line for a go-ahead grand slam before Springer made it 8-5. Luke Gregerson allowed some shenanigans, but the win would be the first of 12 against the Rangers in 2017, after having beaten Arlington ten times in 2015-16 combined. Marwin would go 6x13 with 4HR, 9RBI in the three-game series.

4. May 14. 10-7 win at New York.

Moments after honoring Derek Jeter, the Astros put up a 1st inning 6-spot on the Yankees, fueled by Alex Bregman's grand slam - his first home run of the season. Up through this May 14 game, Bregs was hitting .258/.342/.352. Starting the following day, Bregman hit .292/.355/.512 through the end of the regular season. It also gave the Astros a 3-1 series win at Yankee Stadium.

5. 29 May. 16-8 win at Minnesota.

What is there to say about this game, other than it was a literal miracle, and should have been at least one of the first examples that this season *just might* be special. It allowed us to Hope. The Astros came in to this game having won six of seven games after getting swept at home by Cleveland on the front-end of a 10-game homestand (they'd go 6-4 on that homestand.) The Astros went to Baltimore and swept them.

To this game, though: Houston had a 2-0 lead going into the 5th. Then a disastrous 5th inning in which Brad Peacock and Jordan Jankowski (whose wife is also named Jordan, didja know) allowed the Twins to take a 7-2 lead on silly things like two singles, a double, a triple, a home run, and a passed ball. It was raining hard in the 6th inning, but the game was not delayed. As the 8th inning started, with an 8-2 lead thanks to a Bob Grossman home run, the Twins had a 99% win expectancy. The Astros got a walk, HBP, and four singles to make it 8-6 Twins. It started raining again - though not as hard as in the 6th, and the umpires called for a delay. Beltran noted:
There were some people angry when they put the tarp on. We felt like they took a little momentum away from us. 

The delay lasted ten minutes before play resumed. George Springer hit a 2-1 pitch for a single to cut the lead to 8-7 before Josh Reddick hit a two-run double for seven runs in the 8th inning. A Jose Altuve single made it 10-8 Astros, and two batters later Carlos Beltran hit his sixth home run of the season to make it 13-8 - an 11-run inning, the highest number of runs the Astros would score in a single inning all season. The Twins, whose life spark was extinguished, got three outs on six pitches in the bottom half. The Astros would score three more runs in the top of the 9th and then Gregerson worked around a single and a walk to strike out the side and give the Astros a 16-8 win, in which they scored 14 of the last 15 runs of the game.

Reddick said what everyone was thinking:
I just don't think we ever think we're down and out of a game. We just got to keep confidence in ourselves...This is one game we're going to have to look back to the rest of the year.

And multiple post-season games said "Amen."

6. 10 June. 3-1 win vs Anaheim.

Mike Fiers got demoted to the bullpen between his May 25 and May 30 starts, though you wouldn't know it by looking through his game log. He had a bad start, a God-awful 10H/4R (3ER), 2K:1BB outing in 4.2IP against a God-awful Tigers team and got sent to the outfield. Then the rotation started getting hurt. On May 28 Charlie Morton was put on the DL with a strained lat. Mike Fiers lived to start another day. The day after the Memorial Day Miracle (see above) Fiers threw a sort-of-efficient 6IP, 5H/2ER, 8K:3BB to beat the Twins, who were probably still punch-drunk from the previous day's escapades. At Kansas City on June 5, Fiers - still in the rotation by necessity - was less-than-sort-of-efficient, allowing 7H/2ER, 4K:1BB in 5IP, a game the Astros won 7-3. On June 8 Dallas Keuchel (illness neck) was placed on the DL. But June 10 is by God the day Mike F. Fiers became president.

The division lead wasn't in doubt. The Astros had gone from 5.5 up following the May 21 loss to Cleveland to 12.5 up, having rattled off 14 of 17 wins. But still, Houston needed five starting pitchers. Mike F. Fiers stepped up when the Astros needed him most and out-Ricky Got Dang Nolasco, throwing 7.1IP (his longest outing of the season), 2H/1R (0ER), 8K:2BB. His 82 Game Score (via FanGraphs) was the highest of his season. It was the start of a six-week streak where Fiers would throw a Quality Start in six out of eight starts, right when the Astros needed it. He won't get any Team MVP votes, but Fiers rose to the occasion. He may get non-tendered here soon, but let's not forget what he did every 5th day when the Astros were dealing with too many injuries.

7. 1 July. 7-6 win vs New York.

Getting a Win as a pitcher requires an awful lot of luck. You could be a starter, throw the game of your life, and then maybe a reliever gives up a couple of Royals Specials (bloops just over the head of your gigantic shortstop, for instance) and you get a no-decision. You could be a reliever who craps the bed, but in the next half-inning, your offense goes nuts and you get rewarded with a baseball card stat. This 7-6 win was notable, not for the fact that it is Dayan Diaz's lone career MLB win, but because of how the Astros beat, yes, the Yankees, yet again.

Francis Martes got the start, his fourth of the season, thanks to the aforementioned injuries to the rotation. It was his last start of the season, though he threw 5IP, 4H/2ER, 7K:1BB. But he left two runners on for Will Harris to start the 6th. Harris walked the first batter he faced, then gave up a single to score the 1st runner he inherited from Martes, and then a grand slam to Didi Gregorius to make it 5-2 Yankees, Harris allowing both of Martes' inherited runners to score.

Correa hit a home run in the 6th to cut it to 5-3. Tony Sipp gave up a leadoff home run to Brett Gardner to make it 6-3 Yankees, where the score remained until the bottom of the 8th inning. George Springer struck out swinging for the first out. The Yankees had a 92% win expectancy. Altuve drew a walk, then stole 2nd, then stole 3rd. Correa grounded out to score Altuve, 6-4 Yankees. Evan Gattis hit a home run to make it 6-5 Yankees. Josh Reddick pinch-ran for Carlos Beltran, got picked off, but an error on - wouldn't you know - old friend Chris Carter allowed him to reach 2nd, after which he stole 3rd. Dellin Betances walked Marwin Gonzalez to bring in Aroldis Chapman to face Yuli Gurriel...who hit a two-run double to take lead 7-6. Ken Giles needed 11 pitches to retire the Yankees and the Astros showed they could get to sad-sack Aroldis Chapman...and not for the last time.

8. 30 August. 8-0 loss vs* Arlington (*in Tampa Bay).

Memories of 2008: hurricane comes, forces you to play a home game in a neutral site, and you get dominated, sadness ensues. The Rangers, who had scored 54 runs in 13 games prior to this series in Tampa Bay, had scored 20 runs in the August 29-30 games against the Astros. Something had to be done. For the team, who were clearly disappointed following the relative non-activity of the July 31 trade deadline, for the city in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. We don't know at exactly which point the Astros re-engaged the Tigers on a potential trade for Justin Verlander. The Detroit Free-Press wrote that it was about 11pm Eastern, which would come hours after the Astros beat the Rangers in the series finale in front of 3,385 "fans." But I seriously doubt that it took a 5-1 win over Arlington in the literal ugliest stadium in the Majors (at least Oakland is outside...and the weather is nice) to convince Luhnow to make that trade. This is the most subjective game on this list, but I'm sticking to it.

9. 2 September. Astros take both ends of a double-header against the Mets.

I mean the opposing pitcher was Matt Harvey. If you were watching a movie - a fictional piece of crap on the level of For Love of the Game - and the home team represented a city that just got flat-out freaking destroyed by a hurricane the National Weather Service had named Harvey faced a pitcher named Matt Harvey, you would turn that movie off. Why? Because it was pre-destined. It's what Hollywood had determined. The Astros beat the piss out of the Mets, because they're terrible, but also because the opposing pitcher, a problematic dude who shared the same name as the hurricane that destroyed the city...I know I'm belaboring the point, but COME ON THAT'S RIDICULOUS. And everyone bought in. Before the Sunday game on 3 September, the Astros introduced Justin Verlander, and he became the Randy Johnson for which we yearned, just 19 years after the fact.

10. 5 September. Astros win 3-1 at Seattle; 6 September. Astros win 5-3 at Seattle.

Two games, one player. Cameron Maybin, former teammates with the golden god Justin Verlander, wanted to live up to the reputation. Freed from the mental mind-prison of Anaheim, who have Mike Trout and 24 blokes, Cameron Maybin didn't want to be another bloke. He came to the playoff-bound Astros, and wanted to do what he does best: contribute in very random spots at a time when it would be Extremely Helpful and then return to Whack-A-Mole status. Maybin was acquired for a suitcase full of non-sequential $20s for Arte Moreno to launder. Maybin hit the two-run home run in the 7th on September 5 to give the Astros a 3-1 win. Maybin hit the home run in the 9th on September 6 to give the Astros a 5-3 win. These two home runs effectively ended the Mariners' chance of making a trip to the postseason. It was an example of how this team worked: everyone works together with the common goal of bludgeoning your opponent to death with a stick.