Lance McCullers Jr. is back, causing the rest of the American League to harrumph. "That's all they need!"
McCullers: Back in the saddle
The league's best pitching staff by ERA (3.02), welcomed back their ace from a year ago and suddenly the rich felt richer. McCullers mowed through the Oakland lineup Saturday, spinning six innings of two-hit shutout ball to highlight a series sweep of the scrappy A's. Houston took out the last-place Athletics by scores of 7-5, 8-0 and 6-3. Only Friday's game felt competitive.
Oakland built a 2-0 lead on Luis Garcia before Kyle Tucker launched a grand slam to key a six-run frame en route to victory. Garcia hasn't had a scoreless start since May and his season ERA has grown from 3.04 to 4.03 this summer. He'll probably need to step it up a notch to make the postseason rotation.
McCullers was in top form the next night. The offense produced four two-run frames, including Alex Bregman's 15th home run of the year and three hits from Trey Mancini. In Sunday's finale, Cristian Javier spun a one-hit shutout for the first six innings and snapped a personal month-long losing streak while Bregman homered again and catcher Christian Vazquez chipped in three hits. The bullpen scuffled a bit necessitating an appearance from Ryan Pressly who slammed the door for his 23rd save.
While Manager Dusty Baker has been hesitant to play either Mancini or Vazquez, the third player James Click acquired at the trade deadline, lefty reliever Will Smith, has been a frequent participant. Since arriving from Atlanta, Smith has pitched in six games, allowed three runs (two homers) and carries a 4.76 ERA. We were warned that he had some issues to work out when he was acquired so I presume he is being used to identify and correct whatever adjustments need to be made. It hasn't hurt the Astros so far so we can afford to be patient.
In fact, as of Sunday, the 75-41 Spacemen have a 13-game cushion on Seattle, their closest divisional foe, and have built a 2-1/2 game margin over the faltering Yankees for the league's best record.
Houston had six quality starting pitchers at the trade deadline and dealt Jake Odorizzi to Atlanta to acquire Smith. Now, with McCullers seemingly healthy, the Houston Six Pack is back and better than ever. Between the "Killer V's" (Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez), the veteran McCullers and the "Three Amigos" (Garcia, Javier and Jose Urquidy), the Astros sport pitching depth among the best in history.
The hitters have backslid for most of the year (.244 team batting average - seventh-best in the league) but with Bregman getting hot, Jose Altuve (.328 since July 29th) staying healthy, Aledmys Diaz (.378, 1.119 OPS over the same period) on a roll and the usual production from Tucker and Yordan Alvarez, the bats have been clicking this month.
Absent from the party is left fielder Michael Brantley, who agreed to shoulder surgery to repair his right labrum and will be gone for the rest of the season. Some combination of Alvarez, Mancini, Diaz and Chas McCormick will man the position based on matchups and hot hands.
Riding a four-game winning streak, the Astros fly to the Windy City to challenge the 59-56 Chicago White Sox in a four-game series to start the week. Some barbed comments came out of the Division Series last year (in which McCullers and center fielder Jake Meyers were injured and lost for the rest of the postseason) and it will be interesting to see if harsh words resume almost a year later.
The meeting renews the rivalry of baseball's oldest managing duo - 73-year-old Baker versus 77-year-old Tony LaRussa. Will this be the final year for this pair?
The first three games will have 7:10 p.m. Central start times. Urquidy (11-4, 3.85 ERA) opens against veteran Johnny Cueto (4-5, 2.91) on Monday. Verlander (15-3, 1.85) challenges Dylan Cease (12-5, 1.96) in Tuesday's duel. Valdez (11-4, 2.73) locks horns with Longview native Michael Kopech (4-8, 3.15) in the Wednesday battle before Garcia (9-8, 4.03) and Lucas Giolito (9-6, 4.92) square off in the 1:10 p.m. Central Thursday finale. After this, the Spacemen jet off to Atlanta for a World Series rematch with the Braves. A 4-3 road trip would be all I'll ask.
- Bob Hulsey