Houston Sweeps Tigers, Homestand
Pitching, Homers Carry Seven-Game Steak

Javier: Can't touch this
(c) Washington Post
Holding opponents to two runs per game or less for an entire week has put the struggling Astros right back into the division race with a seven-game winning streak, toppling the Mariners and Tigers to climb within a half-game of surprising Anaheim in the AL West chase.

Changing to a six-man rotation, which keyed an 11-game winning streak last year, has improved Houston's fortunes again this year. I can't think of a solid reason not to stay with it. Why switch from what works?

During the homestand, the Astros tossed three shutouts and won three consecutive games over the Motor City Kitties by 3-2 scores, posting a stingy 1.14 runs per game average for the week. That's with Jake Odorizzi spinning 11-2/3rd innings of five-hit shutout baseball, dropping his season ERA from 6.00 to 3.38. And that's with ace Justin Verlander making just one start where his ERA climbed from 1.73 to 1.93.

Verlander was one of the few dissenters to the six-man plan, stating it disrupted his process between starts. I think it may also have to do with the 130-innings clause that allows his $25 million option for 2023 to kick in. Honestly, if he pitched six innings per start for an entire season pitching every sixth game, his innings pitched total would still come out to over 160 innings but if, theoretically, he were to miss a month for any reason it could threaten the 130 innings threshold.

But why mess with what's working?

Cristian Javier, the "sixth man" in the rotation, piggy-backed on Odorizzi's start Sunday and gave Dusty Baker three hitless innings of relief. Bouncing between the rotation and the bullpen, Javier has tossed 21-2/3rd innings this year with a microscopic 0.83 ERA. So much for needing a routine for preparation.

The bullpen was practically spotless other than the two-run homer Ryan Pressly gave up in his return from the Injured List on Thursday, which necessitated a Kyle Tucker walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth to secure the win. Other than this hiccup, the pen produced 19-1/3rd innings of door-slamming relief this homestand.

The hitters, meanwhile, took care of business but they aren't crushing opponents with the lumber the way they often have in previous years. Houston managed just 3.5 runs per game during the sweep of the Tigers and much of this came via the home run. 11 of their 14 runs against Detroit came from the long ball. The Spacemen produced only 24 hits during the four-game series - that's an average of just six hits per game. If it seems like the Astros just aren't hitting very well, it's because they're not.

Houston is just ninth in the league in runs per game (3.79) this year and just happened to be hosting the team that's last (2.89). Meanwhile, the team ERA through Sunday was 2.95, second to the Yankees (2.60).

One Astro whose offense has perked up is Jose Altuve. His rendition of the Nutcracker, may turn out to be sweet. He got off the deck and batted .500 (7-for-14) with two homers and four runs against the Tigers, raising his batting average from .182 to .259 while his OPS jumped from .626 to .833. Have you ever noticed how much Jose responds to adversity during his career?

As a team, the Astros are 14th in the A.L. in batting average (.217) but they are eighth in OPS (.679). These will have to improve as the weather heats up.

Their next series, however, takes the 18-11 Astros to the icy tundra of Bloomington, Minnesota and a three-game set against Carlos Correa and the 18-11 Twins. It's imperative to compare the $35 million/yr Correa's performance to the minimum-wage replacement Jeremy Pena. After a slow start, Correa has raised his average to .255 with a .693 OPS. He's also had three errors in the field. Pena has a .242 batting average but a .799 OPS thanks to six homers. He's had four errors but the fielding percentages are nearly identical. For now, advantage Astros.

Is this what the statheads mean by "wins above replacement value"?

Tuesday's opener will feature Verlander (3-1, 1.93 ERA) matching up against fellow righty Joe Ryan (3-1, 1.63) in a 6:40 p.m. Central start. Wednesday's contest has Jose Urquidy (2-1, 4.56) challenging former Tampa Bay moundsman Chris Archer (0-0, 3.26) in another 6:40 p.m. tipoff. Thursday's finale will offer Jose Garcia (2-1, 3.45) versus righty Josh Winder (2-0, 1.61) for a 12:10 p.m. getaway game. The nine-game road trip will continue with three-game stops in Washington and Boston before returning home to face the Rangers.

Meanwhile, injured pitcher Lance McCullers threw 90 feet on a flat surface Sunday as part of the rehab on his right flexor tendon. He's on the 60-day injured list and is still not expected to return until mid-summer at the earliest.

Finally, baseball reports that home runs are way down this year from 2021, prompting some conspiracy theories. I think the solution is obvious. Baseball needs to bring back Spider Tack. This wasn't happening last year until the Commish banned the gripping substance.

- Bob Hulsey