Cole's Excellent Birthday Caps Sweep Of M's
Oakland Takes Last Shot At Astros

Cole: Spectacular birthday
(c) Godofredo A. Vasquez
It was the first Sunday of the NFL season and Houston won by 20 points! Oh, wait! The Texans aren't playing until Monday and it was the Astros that posted their second 20-run output of the year, a 21-1 massacre of the Mariners that completed a four-game sweep.

It was the sort of game little boys dream of and Gerrit Cole got to live it on his 29th birthday. Eight innings of one-hit ball with 15 strikeouts while everyone on offense got a hit, many of them two or more. To call it dominant was to slight the performance.

Yordan Alvarez was the center of the offense, drilling four hits including three doubles while driving in six. Houston set a club record with 11 doubles in their 22 hits. Jake Marisnick and the healing George Springer provided the only homers in the slaughter.

Alas, we may have seen the last of King Felix Hernandez. The former great was rocked for the first 11 runs and was knocked out in a nine-run third inning. He took the loss to drop to 1-6 for the year.

The other three games of the series were not as lopsided. The Astros had to come back from a 7-0 deficit on Thursday to tie, 8-8, in regulation and win, 11-9, in the 13th on a walk-off homer by Michael Brantley. Starter Wade Miley did not record an out, leaving the bullpen to do the heavy lifting.

Friday's game started similarly with Framber Valdez giving up three runs early and walking six but the bullpen stepped up again as the Astros recovered for a 7-4 victory. Justin Verlander had to wait until late in the ballgame for any offensive support on Saturday but he lasted long enough to claim his 18th win, 2-1.

The Astros announced that Valdez will no longer be part of the rotation and that Houston would finish the season with just four starters, giving Cole and Verlander both a shot to post 20 wins. The only time the Astros have had two 20-game winners in the same year was 1999 when Mike Hampton and Jose Lima achieved the milestone.

It seems a curious announcement because Houston will have to start someone twice more this season where a fifth arm will be required. The Astros will rely on their 12-man bullpen to fill the gap although Valdez and Jose Urquidy could conceivably serve as starters. No-hit pitcher Aaron Sanchez is looking at season-ending elbow surgery. It would be a longshot, but it is possible that top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley might be brought up for a start.

Kyle Tucker, the top hitting prospect, slugged his first big league homer and contributed a key RBI single in Thursday's win. After a 2-for-5 performance on Sunday, he has a .316 batting average and a .982 OPS but his play at the plate has been spotty overall - six hits in 19 at bats but four have been for extra bases.

On the injury front, shortstop Carlos Correa and reliever Brad Peacock reported no pain during recent workouts and will soon begin rehab stints if there are no setbacks. Springer just returned from a concussion caused by a spill in the outfield against Milwaukee. First baseman Yuli Gurriel has missed time with a mild hamstring strain and is expected to return sometime in the next week. In the meantime, Aledmys Diaz has gotten in work at first.

The 84-59 Oakland Athletics will get their final shot at the Astros for this season with a four-game set at Minute Maid Park. They are 9-1/2 games back of the 94-50 Astros through Sunday and anything less than a four-game sweep will effectively eliminate the A's from a shot at the division crown. However, the Athletics are very much alive in a three-way race for two wild card slots with Tampa Bay and Cleveland so they have every reason to compete.

Former Astro Mike Fiers (14-3) will take the ball for Monday's opener against Zack Greinke (14-5, 4-1 with Houston) who will try to rebound from his first loss as an Astro. Tanner Roark (9-8, 3-1 with Oakland) faces off against Miley (13-4) in Tuesday's contest. Lefty Brett Anderson (11-9) pitches for Oakland against a Houston bullpen effort on Wednesday while Homer Bailey (12-8, 5-2 with Oakland) challenges Verlander (18-5) in the Thursday finale. All four games start at 7:10 pm Central.

Houston enters Monday tied with the Yankees for the best record in the American League. Both are 1-1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers for the best record in the majors.

- Bob Hulsey