Astros finally get some padding in division lead after 5-1 week

Astros finally get some padding in division lead after 5-1 week
Justin Verlander is on a roll. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

With the Oakland A's right on their heels, the Astros needed a big week, and some help from Oakland's opponents, to move closer to clinching the division. Here's how the week unfolded:

Monday, Sept. 10: 89-54 Astros (Justin Verlander) vs. 59-84 Tigers (Francisco Liriano)

Monday night marked Justin Verlander's first return to Detroit since being traded to the Astros at the Sept. 1 deadline in 2017. He was unsurprisingly welcomed very well by the fans, though the Tigers themselves didn't make it easy for him, tagging Verlander with an early run on an RBI single in the second to go up 1-0 on Houston. The Astros were able to answer right back against their former teammate, Francisco Liriano, putting together a three-run third inning with RBI singles from Tyler White and Marwin Gonzalez and another run scoring on a wild pitch to take over the lead at 3-1. Verlander worked around the early earned run for another great start, only giving up one other run which came in the sixth on a sac fly. Justin would go on to complete seven innings with another double-digit strikeout game at ten on the night and walked just one batter. He would go on to get the win with Ryan Pressly working around a hit for a scoreless eighth, then Roberto Osuna forced three straight groundouts to end the game and get another save to start out the week with a win.  
Final Score: Astros 3, Tigers 2

Tuesday, Sept. 11: 90-54 Astros (Framber Valdez) vs. 59-85 Tigers (Jordan Zimmerman)

With George Springer out of the lineup for a day of rest, Jose Altuve had the chance to leadoff for the Astros on Tuesday, and he took advantage of the opportunity by putting Houston up 1-0 with a solo home run on the first pitch of the game. After a leadoff walk by Josh Reddick to start the second, Tony Kemp extended Houston's lead by hitting a home run of his own, making it a 3-0 advantage. Reddick would be part of another two-run home run in the fourth, this time by Tyler White who kept his hot second-half of the season going and extended the lead out to 5-0. Framber Valdez was working well with the lead through the first three innings but ran into trouble in the fourth when he nearly let the lead slip away as the Tigers put together a four-run inning on four hits including a three-run homer. Valdez was able to get through the inning and keep Houston with a one-run lead, but that would be it for him as he was already at 92 pitches through the four innings. That set up a long night for the bullpen and they delivered starting with Will Harris who worked around a walk in the fifth, Joe Smith with a perfect sixth, Hector Rondon getting out of trouble after a couple of hits in the seventh, then Collin McHugh with two strikeouts and no hits in the eighth. That brought the still 5-4 game to the ninth where Roberto Osuna was able to once again retire the Tigers in order to get another save and lock in the series win in Detroit. 
Final Score: Astros 5, Tigers 4

Wednesday, Sept. 12: 91-54 Astros (Gerrit Cole) vs. 59-86 Tigers (Daniel Norris) 

Houston was able to score the first run of the game again on Wednesday afternoon, though instead of it coming on the first pitch like the day prior, it was Alex Bregman with an RBI single in the third putting the Astros up 1-0. Detroit was able to immediately make it a new game in the bottom of the inning, though, getting an RBI single of their own off of Gerrit Cole to make it 1-1. The Tigers would get another run in the next inning, this time a solo home run to take a 2-1 lead, continuing to give Cole trouble with extended at-bats and raising his pitch count to the point that he was only able to get through five innings with the two runs allowed, though he did strike out nine, and the two runs only came on three hits. Cole would actually get help from the offense to put him in line for the win thanks to a big four-run fifth inning including a go-ahead two-RBI double for Alex Bregman to make it 3-2, then RBIs from Tyler White and Marwin Gonzalez to extend the new lead out to 5-2. After the long bullpen day on Tuesday, Houston turned to Josh James to try and eat up some innings after the early exit from Cole, and James came through. Other than a two-run home run allowed in the seventh which trimmed the lead to 5-4, James had a strong appearance and pitched three important innings during which he allowed the two runs on just two hits and had four strikeouts. With Roberto Osuna pitching the two games prior, Ryan Pressly was given the opportunity for a save as the 5-4 game went to the bottom of the ninth. Pressly retired the side in order, completing the three-game sweep of the Tigers as Houston would beat them 5-4 two days in a row. 
Final Score: Astros 5, Tigers 4

Friday, Sept. 14th: 77-70 Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) vs. 92-54 Astros (Dallas Keuchel)

Dallas Keuchel, usually relatively dominant at home, had a rough start to the game in the series opener with Arizona on Friday night. Keuchel issued a one-out walk then ground-rule double which then turned into a quick 2-0 hole after a two-RBI single. Houston put together an equally strong first inning, loading the bases with no outs after a single and two walks. Yuli Gurriel kept the train moving with an RBI-single to keep the bases loaded, then Carlos Correa benefited from the no-out situation scoring a run by grounding into a double play to tie the game 2-2. Both starting pitchers bounced back from their tough first innings, keeping the game tied through the fifth inning. Keuchel was able to grind out a good start after the early trouble, getting through six innings with just the two early runs, allowing five hits, walking four, and striking out five. The Diamondbacks threatened to break the tie in the top of the seventh after getting runners on second and third off of Joe Smith with one out, but Tony Sipp came in for a big strikeout against a lefty then Hector Rondon took over with a big strikeout to end the threat and strand the runners. Tyler White got the first hit for Houston since the first inning, leading off the bottom of the seventh with a double before being pinch-ran for by Jake Marisnick. Marisnick moved to third on a groundout but would be left there after two strikeouts to end the inning. Hector Rondon was back out in the top of the eighth and after allowing a one-out double fell victim to a really strange opposite field broken-bat blooper that resulted in an RBI triple due to the defense playing to pull, resulting in Arizona taking a 3-2 lead. Rondon would allow another run on some bad luck as a fly ball barely beat a diving George Springer, extending the Diamondbacks' lead to 4-2. They would hold on to that lead after getting the Astros to strand two in the eighth and one in the ninth. 
Final Score: Diamondbacks 4, Astros 2

Saturday, Sept. 15: 78-70 Diamondbacks (Zack Godley) vs. 92-55 Astros (Charlie Morton)

Unlike Friday night, there was no scoring in the first inning on Saturday, however, Josh Reddick would put Houston on the board with a solo home run sneaked over the right field corner wall to take an early 1-0 lead. The Astros worked back-to-back walks to lead off the bottom of the third, then extended the lead to 2-0 after a couple of groundouts plated a runner. Morton faltered a bit in the top of the fourth, hitting the first batter of the inning then giving up a single to put runners on the corners with no outs. Morton did well to only give up one run in the situation, a sacrifice fly for the first out before getting out of the inning still with a 2-1 lead. Houston added some more padding to the then one-run lead in the bottom of the fourth, getting a two-RBI single by Marwin Gonzalez then RBI single from Yuli Gurriel to make the lead 5-1. Arizona got one run back in the top of the fifth, a solo home run, but those two runs would be all that Morton would allow on the night as he would go on to complete six innings with two runs allowed on three hits and striking out seven. Houston had another three-run inning in the bottom of the sixth, scoring one on an error then Gurriel driving in two more runs with a two-RBI single to make it an 8-2 game. They didn't stop there, getting two more runs in the seventh on a two-RBI double from Jose Altuve, making it a double-digit night at 10-2. That made things less stressful for the bullpen, starting with Collin McHugh who had a three-up, three-down seventh, followed by Chris Devenski in the eighth who allowed a solo home run to make it 10-3 before getting out of the inning. Brad Peacock made his first appearance since coming down with hand, foot, and mouth disease, taking the mound in the ninth to close the game, but not before Arizona would score one more run. 
Final Score: Diamondbacks 4, Astros 10

Sunday, Sept. 16: 78-71 Diamondbacks (Zack Greinke) vs. 93-55 Astros (Justin Verlander)

Sunday's rubber match between the Astros and Diamondbacks was a pitching duel, as expected, in the early goings. Houston was able to get a first-inning run after George Springer started the game with a single, moved to third on a single by Jose Altuve, then came home on a double play to give the Astros the quick 1-0 lead. It would stay a 1-0 game for quite a while with both pitchers keeping the opposite offenses at bay. It was a great day for Justin Verlander, who started the game red-hot by getting seven of the first nine outs via strikeout. Verlander's biggest ding on the day came in the sixth when he allowed a solo home run to tie the game at 1-1. Still, Verlander finished with another terrific line, going seven strong with just one run on three hits and getting yet another double-digit strikeout game with eleven on the afternoon. He left well in line for another win after Tyler White gave Houston the lead back in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI ground-rule double, then Josh Reddick led off the bottom of the seventh with a solo homer before Jose Altuve drove in the fourth run of the day later in the inning on an RBI single to make it 4-1. Ryan Pressly was first out of the pen in the top of the eighth and put together another solid inning, getting the Diamondbacks out in order on just seven pitches. In the bottom of the eighth, Carlos Correa led the inning off with a lucky double on a dropped ball in the outfield, then moved to third on an error before scoring on a sac fly from Martin Maldonado to make the lead four runs at 5-1. Collin McHugh took over on the mound in the top of the ninth, but after getting one out allowed runners on the corners, prompting another call to the bullpen to bring out Roberto Osuna who allowed a sac fly for the second out then gave up a two-run home run to bring the Diamondbacks within one run at 5-4. He'd get out of it, though, getting the final out on a strikeout to finish off the series win. 
Final Score: Diamondbacks 4, Astros 5


Another strong week across the board for the Astros, battling out a great 5-1 record over the six games. It looked as though the offense was going to continue their woes at home after being held to just two runs in the loss on Friday night, but they turned that right around and scored 15 runs over the two games on Saturday and Sunday, finally showing that they can translate their strength on the road to Minute Maid Park. They'll need to keep that up this week because the A's continue to find ways to win, though did lose their last two games of the week to fall to 4.5 games back of Houston in the division. Though it's great to see the bats put up double-digit runs, they likely won't have to do that very often to win games, because the pitching all-around for Houston has been stellar recently. The top three (in my opinion, not necessarily the depth chart equivalent) of the rotation, Verlander, Cole, and Morton have all been providing excellent starts, and Keuchel is still doing much better at the end of the season than he did at the beginning, though he can still get caught on a bad day and give up too many runs. The bullpen has been great, most notably Ryan Pressly who has only allowed two runs in his 21 appearances since coming to Houston in July. The biggest area of concern for the Astros right now is Carlos Correa. Correa has simply not progressed back to his normal performance since returning from his long stint on the DL. He continues to be a liability at the plate, grounding into a lot of outs and double plays which could be game-killers in the playoffs when runs will be much harder to come by. He needs to turn things around, and fast. 

MVP of the Week - Justin Verlander

Justin Verlander is so much better than his record of 16-9. Verlander is pitching arguably some of his best starts right now, highlighted by a couple of great starts he had this week. Between his start on Monday and Sunday, Verlander went 14 innings (seven in each game), allowed just 3 runs on 9 hits, walked only two batters, and dominated with 21 strikeouts. He will be the anchor and ace for Houston's rotation when they go into the playoffs, and if he can keep things going, should be in for as monumental of a post-season run as he had last year. 

This week

  • Mon-Wed: (82-67) Mariners @ (94-55) Astros
  • Fri-Sun: (74-76) Angels @ (94-55) Astros

With just a couple of weeks left in the regular season, the Astros will play their final games at home this week before going on the road for the final seven games. They'll wrap up the season series against both the Mariners and Angels. The Angels are fully eliminated from playoff contention, and the Mariners are virtually eliminated at seven games back in the AL wild-card race. Hopefully, the Astros can take advantage of these teams and get some help from Oakland's opponents to get closer to locking up the AL West crown. 

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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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