Houston starts the season with a victory

Astros cruise past A's for Opening Day win

Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley of the Astros celebrating
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Alex Bregman and Michael Brantley celebrate a home run on Opening Day 2021

After coming a game shy of making their third World Series appearance in four years, the Astros left behind the pandemic-shortened 2020 season where they fell to the Rays in the ALCS and turned their attention to a new, clean 162-game slate. As far as the fans at Oakland Coliseum were concerned Thursday night, though, their reputation was anything but clean, as Houston began their 2021 regular season playing their first regular-season game in front of booing fans to start a four-game series against the A's. The Astros were able to weather the hostility, driving in enough runs to back up a solid start by Zack Greinke to start the year 1-0.

Final Score: Astros 8, A's 1

Astros' Record: 1-0, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Zack Greinke

Losing Pitcher: Chris Bassitt

Houston brings in the first runs

Both teams began the night quietly at the plate, with just a lone hit on each side through three innings. Houston fared better the second time through their lineup, starting with Jose Altuve, who led off the fourth with a walk, advanced to third on a double by Michael Brantley, then scored on an RBI-groundout by Alex Bregman, the first run of the season to give the Astros a 1-0 lead.

The reason for the quiet start for both offenses — an entertaining pitching matchup was unfolding against Chris Bassitt and Zack Greinke. While Bassitt allowed a run in the fourth, he was otherwise successful on the mound until the sixth, when he would be relieved after a one-out double followed by a walk. Both of those runs would eventually score, as later in the inning, Yordan Alvarez sent a fastball the opposite way off the left-field wall for a two-RBI double to extend the lead to 3-0.

Greinke cruises through six

For Houston, Greinke was on cruise control tossing six scoreless frames, during which he allowed only three hits and just one runner to make it to scoring position. It being just the first game of the season, Dusty Baker did not try to test him too far, going to his bullpen after six innings. Greinke's final line: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 82 P.

Enoli Paredes took over in the seventh, allowing Oakland's first run of the night and season after a leadoff double would come around on a sac-fly to make it a 3-1 game. Paredes would toss more pitches than he bargained for but eventually completed the frame with only the one run allowed.

Astros get the Opening Day victory

Michael Brantley took the run right back in the top of the eighth, leading the inning off with a solo home run to push the lead back to three runs. Alex Bregman made it back-to-back homers in the next at-bat, crushing one of his own 418 feet to the left-field stands, extending the lead to 5-1. Houston would load the bases on two walks and a pitch into Yordan Alvarez's back but left them stranded to keep the score there.

Joe Smith, who opted out of the 2020 season, made his return to regular-season play, coming in out of the bullpen for the bottom of the eighth. He faced four batters, getting two outs while allowing two hits before left-handed Blake Taylor would come in to counter lefty Matt Olson, who struck out to end the frame.

In the top of the ninth, former-Astro Reymin Guduan loaded the bases with no outs after a single and back-to-back walks to start things off. Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez would both bring in runs on a sac fly, Michael Brantley scored on a wild pitch, and when the dust settled, it was now an 8-1 game. Ryne Stanek was given the bottom of the ninth with the large lead, which he would complete to finish off the win.

Up Next: The second of this four-game series will be another late start in the Central time zone, getting underway at 8:40 PM on Friday. Cristian Javier (5-2, 3.48 ERA in 2020) will look to build upon the success he found in 2020 for the Astros, starting on the mound opposite of Jesus Luzardo (3-2, 4.12 ERA) for the A's.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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