KEYS TO VICTORY

Forcing a Game 7 will come down to these critical keys for Astros

Forcing a Game 7 will come down to these critical keys for Astros
Luis Garcia will start Game 6 on short rest. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Astros back Garcia to end three-game skid with shutout win over Twins

After falling behind 4-0 in Game 5 of the World Series, the Astros bounced back to defeat the Braves 9-5 and force a Game 6 back in Texas Tuesday night.

Houston still trails Atlanta 3-2 in the series, but a little home cooking can be just what this Astros team needs to stay alive.

A lot of things need to go right for Houston to obtain their second Commissioner's Trophy in five years including pitching, hitting and some hope.

Wake up certain bats

The Astros as a team have hit a combined .231 in the World Series. This needs to change if they want to force a Game 7 and certain bats need to improve. Houston is lacking in the home run department as well, with Jose Altuve being the lone player to hit both homers for this Astros team.

Certain hitters have yet to find their groove this series, such as Alex Bregman and ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez. Astros catcher Martin Maldonado has as many hits as both Bregman and Alvarez combined.

No disrespect to the Gold Glove caliber catcher, but he shouldn't be ahead of these two sluggers in any hitting category.

Manager Dusty Baker moved Bregman down in the lineup to the seven spot for Game 5 and it seemed to work as the third baseman got only his second hit of the series.

As for Alvarez, it can be assumed he will remain the cleanup hitter in this batting order, as his bat when right is too valuable to drop any further.

If the Astros can get these two guys going at the plate against Atlanta pitchers Max Fried Game 6 and potentially Ian Anderson for Game 7, Houston should have little to no issues staying in these contests and becoming a tough out for the Braves.

Pitching is key

It's not a stretch to say this pitching staff has been taxed.

Jose Urquidy has been the only pitcher to throw for more than five innings in a game.

Framber Valdez and Zack Greinke went as long as they could, but Houston needed the bullpen to finish out all three of their combined starts.

Luis Garcia is slated to take the mound Tuesday night on three days rest, and the question is which version of the rookie pitcher will we see.

The 24-year-old's postseason didn't get off to a great start when he was rocked by both the White Sox in the ALDS and his first appearance against Red Sox in the previous series.

Garcia did bounce back and had his best outing of the playoffs against Boston in Game 6 of the ALCS.

He pitched decently Game 3 of the World Series in which he allowed a single run in 3.2 innings of work.

If the Astros want to force a Game 7 Wednesday night, Garcia needs to take the mound with confidence and pitch a little deeper into the game.

Assuming he can last at least four innings on the mound, the bullpen could be in great shape to closeout the game if needed. And speaking of which.

The bullpen stays strong

One of the best attributes of this Astros team as of late has been their bullpen. With the exception of Cristian Javier, all of Houston's late inning arms have an ERA of 3 or lower.

That's in large part due to Baker's management of the pitchers he uses late in games.

The majority of runs surrendered by Astros' pitching has been from their starters and not relievers.

The bullpen has bent but not broken this postseason, thus giving Houston opportunities to come back late in some games.

If the Astros get some much-needed improvements from certain hitters, Luis Garcia and the bullpen pitch well, there is no reason not to expect Houston to force a Game 7.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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