It used to be that the Astros had trouble closing ballgames. Now it seems they are having trouble closing series. Houston lost the series finale at Tropicana Field, home of the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays, 5-4 after building a three-run lead. Sloppy defense was partly to blame as the Rays salvaged Sunday's contest. There's no need for Dusty's Darlings to hang their heads since "The Trop" is the location where the Spacemen have been least successful over the years, so grabbing wins of 9-2 and 3-1 secured an unexpected series victory.
Easily-triggered Yankee fans
(c) Associated Press
A nasty habit is forming however. One must go all the way back to April 6th for the last time the Astros won a series finale. Since then, they are 0-7 trying to win the last game of a series. Fortunately, for the 15-13 ballclub, they are 12-6 so far in the rest of their games to land 1-1/2 back of fickle Oakland in a bunched American League West entering play Monday.
Houston sits third in the division, a win behind Seattle. It should be noted that the Astros are the only team in the West with a positive run differential (+32) which tells you the Astros aren't getting the mileage they should out of their offense. Their Pythagorean record (which estimates wins and losses based on runs scored and allowed) says Houston should be 17-11 at this point.
There is reason for optimism. The Astros are 8-3 (guess which three?) in their last three series and lead in head-to-head matchups against all their division rivals except the lowly Rangers whom they have yet to play.
The starting pitching, which was a major concern when the year began, are now blossoming such that Dusty Baker may have trouble deciding who departs when Jake Odorizzi and Framber Valdez return from the injured list. Against Tampa, Lance McCullers (2-1, 3.38 season ERA) tossed seven shutout innings on Friday night while Jose Urquidy (2-2, 3.71) followed up on Saturday with seven more goose eggs. Red-hot pitcher Cristian Javier (3-0, 1.75) cruised through four shutout frames before allowing a three-run homer in the fifth.
Zack Greinke (2-1, 3.44) and Luis Garcia (0-3, 2.70) also looked strong in their last outings. Greinke will get the call in Tuesday's 6:05 pm Central opener at Yankee Stadium in New York. Garcia is scheduled for Wednesday's 6:05 Central contest while McCullers squares off against former Astro Gerrit Cole in the dreaded 12:05 Central Thursday finale before returning home to battle ex-Astro George Springer and the Toronto Blue Jays.
Yankee fans don't need any excuses to be jerks but they will already be in a foul mood when the Astros take the field. The 14-14 Bronx Bombers haven't dominated their division the way their fans expected, even showering them with baseballs from the stands one night in dismay. Their .221 team batting average is 11th in the league thus far although their team ERA (3.02) is first. Houston is hitting .253 as a team (fourth-best in the AL) and their 3.68 team ERA is also fourth.
Thankfully, Yankee Stadium is only allowed to operate at 20% capacity under health orders of Governor Andrew Cuomo. They will be expanded to 33% on May 19th after the Astros are long gone.
While this will be their supporters' first chance to vent after the 2017 cheating scandal, a few irritating facts must be pointed out. In the 2017 ALCS Game 7, the sainted Yankees had only three hits and no runs the entire evening. That was accomplished without any trashcan banging necessary thanks to McCullers and Charlie Morton.
Yankee media similarly thinks Jose Altuve's clinching homer off Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS was tainted because he clutched his shirt while rounding the bases. Yankee fans claim Altuve was trying to hide a beeper affixed to his chest while Altuve claims he had recently added a new tattoo for his daughter that he didn't want damaged during the mob scene at home plate. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has weighed in that there was no evidence Altuve had cheated.
Nor have the Yankees been above reproach the past few years themselves although MLB has withheld information on those investigations which the Yankees sought to block in court.
Houston's lineup seems to be finally back to full health as Altuve and Yordan Alvarez came back from COVID timeouts. Alvarez (.313 batting average/.910 OPS), Yuli Gurriel (.327/.941) and Michael Brantley (.330/.885) continue to carry the offense.
The Astros moved reliever Pedro Baez to the 60-day Injured List and called up Peter Solomon to the roster however Solomon was sent back to the alternate camp when reliever Andre Scrubb was activated. First Baseman Taylor Jones was also called up briefly when Alvarez went back into the COVID protocol but was returned to Corpus Christi when Alvarez was cleared.
Incidentally, the Sugar Land Skeeters make their AAA debut as an Astros affiliate this Thursday in Albuquerque. They won't open at 7,500-seat Constellation Field until May 20th. Until their debut, their players will continue to work out in Corpus Christi.
- Bob Hulsey