Alvarez Breathes Excitement Into Finale
Astros Blank O's, Bud Boys Next

Alvarez: Visions of Stretch
(c) Karen Warren/Houston Chronicle
His name is Yordan Ruben Alvarez. I call him "Tramo".

The 21-year-old phenom, acquired at the 2016 trade deadline for reliever Josh Fields, is an imposing 6-foot-5 lefthanded slugger who wore number 44 on his back for his big league debut Sunday. In the fifth inning of a scoreless tie, Alvarez, with a runner aboard, launched a rocket at the Conoco Home Run Pump above the left-centerfield wall. The ball left the yard in a hurry and did not appear to bend noticeably earthbound the entire time.

Welcome to the American League, Tramo.

On a normal day, the focus might have been on the 4-0, six-hit shutout crafted by Wade Miley (6-3) and four relievers to push the 45-22 Astros to a series win over lowly Baltimore after splitting the first two games of the weekend set, 4-3 and 4-1. But Alvarez left fans gasping and dreaming of more.

Tramo (TRAH-mo) is Spanish for "Stretch" and the towering lefty hitter with the number 44 and the punishing swing makes old-timers like me remember the great Hall-of-Fame 1B/LF Willie "Stretch" McCovey, who died last year at the age of 80.

McCovey was NL Rookie of the Year in 1959, NL Most Valuable Player in 1969 and paired with Willie Mays to make one of the most feared hitting duos for over a decade. He finished a 22-year-career with 521 homers and an .889 OPS. His looping swing could be so savage that you felt sorry for the ball. No doubt, like Mays, McCovey lost a chunk of homers to the brisk Candlestick Park winds but he didn't hit many cheapies.

I watched McCovey myself as a boy smash a home run in the vacuum-packed Astrodome that seemed to just knife through the non-existant breeze as it made a beeline to the seats. Off the field, the Alabama native had a quiet and dignified manner that was probably happy to see Mays get all the publicity. They were the West Coast version of the "M&M Boys".

Is it too much to put this sort of pressure on Alvarez after just one big league game? Yes, we all remember other well-hyped hitters like Jon Singleton and Eric Anthony who never lived up to their early promise.

But this Cuban exile is going to have to live with the expectations after his big league debut. He murdered AAA pitching. He knows he'll have to adjust to better breaking pitches and hurlers who know how to hit the target pitch after pitch. He'll need to learn to protect that big frame and not expand the strike zone.

He wowed the manager and coaches in Florida this spring and that momentum hasn't abated. At a time when high-profile stars like George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are out with injuries, it was clear the offense needed a boost and Alvarez gave them one.

Next, we'll see if he can keep it up.

Monday was a needed off-day for the weary bullpen who was tasked with back-to-back extra-inning games. The National League imposters who created the situation that forced the Astros into the American League, aka the Milwaukee Brewers (or the "Bud Boys"), come to Houston for a two-game series beginning Tuesday.

Brad Peacock (5-3) was roughed up his last time out. He'll get the start Tuesday against Freddy Peralta (3-2). Justin Verlander (9-2) takes the hill for the Wednesday finale. No starter has been named yet for Milwaukee. Both games have a 7:10 pm Central first pitch. Another day off on Thursday follows before the homestand ends with a weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

To make room for Tramo, the Astros sent down reliever Reymin Guduan which returns Houston to 12 pitchers (and 13 non-pitchers) for the first time since Altuve was replaced by Corbin Martin on the active roster 28 days earlier. Framber Valdez took Martin's spot in the rotation and Cionel Perez seems to have grasped the lefty bullpen role after a dramatic performance Friday.

If Alvarez turns out to be the real deal, imagine how sick our lineup will be once everyone is healthy again.

- Bob Hulsey