Astros Fall Back To .500 After Loss To Mets
Whitley, Tucker Among Cuts

Alvarez: Could he pass Tucker?
(c) Yi-Chin Lee / Houston Chronicle
If you ask the Astros who they believe will win the National League East, you'll have few takers for anyone besides the Washington Nationals. If experience is a teacher, that is.

The West Palm Beach bunkmates have won all five of their head-to-head showdowns with Houston including a 6-4 verdict on Sunday and a 5-3 decision on Tuesday. After splitting games with the New York Mets, the Astros are 9-9-2 on the Grapefruit Circuit.

Wade Miley started Sunday's contest at West Palm and lasted 3-2/3rd innings but the Nationals also tallied three times against him. Washington built a 6-0 lead before the Astros' backups put on a furious rally that fell short.

Houston grabbed a 6-3 win on Monday in West Palm with another late flurry after Framber Valdez surrendered three runs in the second. Nick Tanielu slugged his fourth homer of the spring which leads the team. He has seen a lot of work at second base with Jose Altuve ailing.

Justin Verlander took the hill for Tuesday's loss to the Nats. Who needs Bryce Harper when you can have 2016 first-round pick Carter Kieboom (if that isn't pronounced "ka-BOOM", it should be)? Kieboom took Verlander deep twice and drove in three of Washington's runs. Yordan Alvarez punched two hits but they did not have the impact of the Nationals'.

Gerrit Cole also suffered from the gopher ball during a 2-1 loss to the Mets on Wednesday. Robinson Cano's two-run blast in the fourth marred a 4-2/3rd inning performance by Cole who fanned four. Noah Syndegaard of the Mets lasted almost through the sixth inning while scattering just two hits and striking out five.

That the starting pitching hits some bumps while stretching out their arms, what is a bit disconcerting is how poorly the Astros regulars have hit in the spring. With a few exceptions, the Opening Day roster has flailed away led by George Springer (.160 batting average), Jose Altuve (.182), Max Stassi (.185) and Tyler White (.192). But, hey, better to slump now than when it counts.

While the Astros dropped three of four, they also sent down many of their top prospects to minor league camp for reassignment, including pitching phenom Forrest Whitley and hitting stud Kyle Tucker who is in danger of being passed by Alvarez. None of these moves were unexpected. Barring injuries or a trade, the 13 non-pitchers are largely set in stone.

Manager A.J. Hinch still has some decisions to make about his 12-man pitching staff that begins the season but it appears Brad Peacock has won the job as the fifth starter. That's good because he was terrific as a starter in 2017 when we won it all (13-2, 3.00 ERA). The Astros would be thrilled with a repeat performance or even close to it.

On the other end of the spectrum, pitcher Francis Martes has been suspended for 80 games after failing a drug screen. The righthander was found to have an ovulation drug in his system that is banned for use in men and is said to raise testosterone levels. Martes missed most of last season with arm surgery. Lighten up, I'm not going to say it.

In our continuing effort to track the unsigned Astros free agents, reliever Tony Sipp took a one-year deal with the Nationals so he won't have to walk far to find his old buddies. At this writing, Evan Gattis and Dallas Keuchel are still waiting for a deal they can accept. Time is running out for them.

On Friday, the Astros will play a home-and-home doubleheader against the St. Louis Cardinals with a day game in West Palm and an evening contest at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium in Jupiter, FL. Saturday and Sunday will have road contests against the Phillies and Braves, respectively, before an off-day on Monday.

- Bob Hulsey