Houston's winning streak ends

Astros drop opener to A's in back-and-forth battle

Astros' Jose Altuve
Houston's bullpen couldn't hold back Oakland on Tuesday. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Houston's bullpen couldn't hold back Oakland on Tuesday.

After a successful ten-game homestand where they went 8-2 to climb back to a half-game deficit in the division standings, the Astros arrived at Oakland Coliseum Tuesday night to face the A's. A win would put them back on top of the AL West, but their bullpen would not be up for the job Tuesday night, allowing the A's to take the opener.

Final Score: A's 6, Astros 5

Astros' Record: 24-18, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yusmeiro Petit (5-0)

Losing Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (2-2)

Alvarez and Tucker provide early runs, Oakland matches against Javier

The Astros began this series the same way they won several of their games over their recent hot streak: jumping out to an early lead. With two outs in the top of the first, Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel reached base on back-to-back hits, bringing Yordan Alvarez to the plate, who would drive both in on a two-RBI double to give Houston a 2-0 lead.

Kyle Tucker continued the tear he has been on by crushing a leadoff solo homer 459 feet in the top of the fourth. Although Cristian Javier would only allow five hits over his six innings, three of them were costly. He allowed two solo homers to Ramon Laureano, one in the bottom of the first and another in the bottom of the fourth, both cutting the lead to one run at the time.

Nearing the end of his night, it looked as though he might leave in line with the win with two strikeouts to start the bottom of the sixth, but a third solo homer by Oakland would tie the game before Javier finished the frame. His final line: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 3 HR, 95 P.

Houston's bullpen can't finish the job

That set up a battle of the bullpens for the final three innings. Houston regained the lead in the top of the seventh on an RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would move to third then scored on consecutive sac flies, making it a 5-3 game. Enoli Paredes took over for Javier in the bottom of the seventh but would get just one out while loading the bases on a single and two walks, which prompted Dusty Baker to make a quick switch to Andre Scrubb. Scrubb allowed a sacrifice fly to bring Oakland back within a run at 5-4 but would hold them there to finish the inning.

Ryne Stanek took over out of the bullpen in the bottom of the eighth. A leadoff walk would bite him, as it would become the game-tying run on an RBI-double with one out. He wouldn't get through the inning, getting just another out before the Astros moved on to Bryan Abreu, who put an end to the inning on one pitch.

After a scoreless top half by their offense, Houston sent Abreu back out to try and force extras. A one-out walk would put the winning runner on base, who moved to third on a single. Laureano would bring in another run, this one the biggest, on a walk-off sac fly, moving Oakland up to 1.5 games ahead of Houston in the division.

Up Next: The middle game of this three-game set will be another 8:40 PM Central start on Wednesday. Frankie Montas (5-2, 4.93 ERA) will be on the mound for Oakland, while Zack Greinke (3-1, 4.18 ERA) will make the start for Houston.

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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