It's a good thing the Astros play baseball instead of working in sales because they seem to have problems finishing what they start. After a strong 11-2 series opener against second-place Seattle on Monday, the Spacemen fought their way to a 5-4 nailbiter in Tuesday's game, winning on a walk-off double from Carlos Correa but Wednesday's finale ended in an 8-5 defeat.
Odorizzi (17) with Baker (12)
(c) Associated Press
Entering Friday's action, the Mariners and Oakland A's both carry a 76-64 record, 5-1/2 games in back of the Astros at 81-58 for the AL West crown. The "magic number" for Houston is 18, meaning any combination of Astros wins and Seattle/Oakland losses would clinch the division title.
Lance McCullers tossed six strong innings on Monday while the bats supported him with eleven tallies. That's how this is supposed to work. So massive was the lead that Manager Dusty Baker felt at ease to let Brandon Bielak spin the final three innings.
For the first four innings Tuesday, the story was similar with Houston nursing a 2-0 lead. However, Jake Odorizzi has had a problem virtually all season when he gets to the third time through the opponent's batting order. This happened again in the fifth when Odorizzi allowed a two-run double to J.P. Crawford that tied up the game.
Baker turned to the bullpen while Odorizzi, who'd only thrown 66 pitches, fumed. More on this later.
Trailing 4-2 in the ninth, Alex Bregman tied it with a two-run homer over the Crawfords. It was just his eighth home run of the season and first since returning from the Injured List. In the tenth, Correa slapped a double to right center that scored Yuli Gurriel for the game-winner. It was all hugs and celebration.
Except for Odorizzi who vented his frustration to the media. In honesty, he has nobody to blame but himself. It's been well documented that Jake has been mostly masterful during the first two times through the opposing lineup but predictably implodes the third time through. Baker gave Odorizzi enough rope to see the same story evolving and acted appropriately before the score got out of hand.
Odorizzi met with Baker and GM James Click before Wednesday's finale to discuss the issue and all agreed they had a professional discussion. What it all boils down to is he won't be a starting pitcher when Houston hopefully makes the playoffs; they have five who have pitched better. Jake seems like a good candidate for long relief if he's willing to do the job.
Wednesday was the chance to gain a sweep and a truly dominant lead in the division. Homers from newly-added Marwin Gonzalez and Jose Altuve gave the Astros a 4-2 lead but the bullpen couldn't hold it, allowing two in the seventh and four in the ninth to keep the Mariners in the race. Houston won the season series, 11-to-8.
Now the 69-71 Angels of Anaheim arrive for a three-game weekend set. Likely AL MVP Shohei Ohtani (9-1) will pitch the Friday 7:10 p.m. Central opener against Framber Valdez (9-5, 3.08 ERA) who has struggled of late. Saturday's 6:10 p.m. contest will feature Jose Suarez (6-7) challenging Luis Garcia (10-6, 3.29). For Sunday's finale, Jaime Barria (2-3) is scheduled for Anaheim but the Astros' starter has not been announced at this time. It would be McCullers' (11-4, 3.19) turn in the rotation but perhaps Baker will turn to Zack Greinke (11-5, 3.66) if he's ready to come off the health and safety protocol injure list.
Of greater concern is that the bullpen seems to be lacking a reliable answer despite all the wheeling and dealing Click did at the trade deadline. Ryan Pressly has been proving mortal recently and Kendall Graveman may have hit a wall in his new role as a reliever (he had been a starter at Oakland). Ryne Stanek and Yimi Garcia remain hit-and-miss. Cristian Javier appears rarely and suffers from wildness when he appears. Phil Maton has not been impressive. Free agent signee Pedro Baez is back on the Injured List.
It's too early to panic but the Astros may find themselves getting a quick playoff exit if the bullpen doesn't bounce back. Oddly enough, a guy like Odorizzi could become a post-season hero if he will embrace the opportunity.
- Bob Hulsey