Week in review

Astros recap: Winning streak grows as playoffs loom

Justin Verlander and the Astros are prepping for the playoffs. Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros won their fifth straight game on Tuesday, beating the White Sox 3-1. Mchugh had a good start, going five innings while giving up just one run which came on a RBI double by Abreu in the third. That would be the only run the White Sox would score thanks to five strikeouts from Mchugh and four scoreless innings from Harris, Gregerson, Devenski, and Giles, who earned his thirty-second save of the year. Offensively, the Astros bounced back from the early 1-0 deficit by putting up two runs in the fourth on a solo homer from Altuve and RBI double from Bregman. The Astros added a third run in the eighth on a RBI groundout from Altuve, sending them on to the win.

They would add one more win to make it six straight on Wednesday with a 4-3 win thanks to another solid start from Peacock and some timely offense. Peacock went six strong innings, giving up just one hit which unfortunately was a two-run home run to Moncada in the top of the fourth. That gave the White Sox a 2-1 lead at the time after a RBI single from Gattis in the second had put the Astros up 1-0. Gurriel answered back in the bottom of the fourth with a two-RBI double to give the Astros the lead back 3-2. Altuve extended the lead with a RBI single in the seventh to make it 4-2 before Sanchez trimmed the lead back to 1 with a RBI double off of Gregerson in the top of the eighth to make it 4-3. Musgrove would come in for the final four outs and had another strong appearance out of the bullpen to get the save and seal the win.

The winning streak would come to an end on Thursday as the Astros would lose 3-1 on a night filled with the White Sox’ bullpen. The starter for Chicago, Fulmer, had to exit the game just one out into the bottom of the first inning due to a finger blister, setting up a game filled with seven pitchers out of the bullpen for the White Sox. The Astros were able to get just one run off of them, which came by way of a solo home run from McCann in the bottom of the third inning. Outside of that, the Astros were held to just two other hits and were unable to get any offense going. Keuchel started for the Astros but due to the limited run support earned the loss as a result of two runs he gave up, one in the second as he walked in a run, and then a RBI groundout by Smith in the third with the bases loaded. The White Sox added an insurance run on a solo home run by Anderson in the eighth off of Martes as they cruised to their victory which when combined with the sweep in Chicago earlier this season won them the season series 4-2.

The Astros got back on track Friday night with the fourth straight stellar start from Verlander which surged them on to their 3-0 shutout win over the Angels. Verlander was terrific again, going seven strong innings during which he gave up just one hit and struck out six. Devenski pitched a great eighth setting up Giles for his 33rd save of the year. All of the Astros’ runs came on one great swing of the bat by Gurriel, a three-run blast to left-center which turned out to be the difference maker in an otherwise quiet game offensively for both teams.

Saturday’s game was a lot more interesting offensively in the Astros’ favor. I was somewhat surprised when I turned the game on in the top of the fifth and saw Morton pitching with a 34 pitch count. I had to quickly look up to see who had started and why Morton had been brought in as a long reliever, then I realized that Morton, in fact, had started the game, but had somehow managed to get through the first four innings with only those 34 pitches. Morton’s one blemish on the day was a solo homer by Upton in the top of the seventh, which was Morton’s last inning despite only being at 81 pitches. He left with a 5-1 lead thanks to RBIs from Correa in the first and fifth and a huge three-run blast form Gattis in the fifth. Correa added his third RBI of the game in the bottom of the seventh on a single to make it 6-1. Sipp and Musgrove combined for a scoreless eighth before Harris came in for the ninth. Upton got his second homer of the game off Harris in the top of the ninth, but the Angels were unable to do anything else, sending the Astros to the 6-2 win, which they were able to get despite resting Altuve, Springer, and Reddick.

The Angels got the better of the Astros’ bullpen on Sunday Night Baseball last night, winning the series finale 7-5 and keeping their chances at the second AL Wild Card spot, as slim as they are, alive. McCullers made his first start back from his most recent stint on the DL and looked decent, but not great. He was able to get through the first two innings without too much trouble and struck out four in those two innings, but got into trouble in the third after putting runners on the corner and inducing a ground ball that arguably could’ve gone home but Bregman got the out at second instead. He was able to limit the damage to that one run but gave up a solo homer to Phillips in the top of the fourth followed by a strong line drive out to center which prompted Hinch to go to the bullpen with McCullers being on a limited pitch count anyway. The Astros had a 4-2 lead at the time thanks to a huge bottom of the third where Bregman launched a two-run blast into the Crawford Boxes along with a two-RBI double from Gattis. The momentum shifted in the fifth when Martes struggled in another relief appearance, loading the bases then walking in a run before being pulled for Hoyt. Hoyt came in and walked in a run as well to tie the game at 4 before getting out of the inning. Former Astro Valbuena got the best of Devenski in the top of the seventh, scoring two to make it 6-4 with a double to the fence in right field. The Astros got one back with a Springer Dinger in the bottom of the seventh to trim the lead to one, but Upton answered right back with one of his own off of Gregerson in the top of the eighth, making it 7-5, which would be the final.

The Astros could’ve used the momentum of sweeping the Angels and getting the win last night in primetime to make it a 5-1 week, but a 4-2 week isn’t too shabby either. They won both series while tinkering and tuning things up for the playoffs, which is a good thing. The fight with the Indians will get interesting this week, as the Indians will have three games against the Twins who are trying to hold off everyone else for the second Wild Card spot, but then finish with three against the lowly White Sox. The Astros currently sit 2.5 games behind the Indians, meaning they’ll have to have a great week paired with some Indian losses to overtake them and clinch home field throughout the AL playoffs.

Even though it looks like it may be time to shut McCullers down or move him to the bullpen, I’m not worried because of the fierce competition for the playoff rotation going on between Peacock, Morton, and McHugh. I wouldn’t fault Hinch for putting any of those guys in the third spot in the rotation, they’ve all been dealing. Verlander has been outstanding, and I have a feeling Keuchel will be better than ever on the playoff stage. Things are shaping up for a fun playoff run, and I still think the Astros have as good a shot as anyone.

MVP of the Week – Carlos Beltran: Unlike my usual MVP of the week which is a player who shined in that particular week, I had to get in Carlos Beltran for his overall success and for what he’s brought to the team this year. When I heard the Astros landed him this year, I knew it was to bring his veteran presence to this young team, and even though we can’t see exactly how he’s helped in that way, it’s apparent that this team looks and plays more maturely than they would had he not been brought in. In addition to that, last night he hit his 2,722nd hit of his career passing Lou Gehrig for 62nd of all time. Also, he donated $1,000,000 of his own money to aid Puerto Rico during their hurricane rebuild efforts. He’s a class act on and off the field, and the Astros are better for having him this year.

This Week’s Schedule

  • MON-WED: Astros (95-60) @ Rangers (76-79)
  • THU-SUN: Astros (95-60) @ Red Sox (91-64)

Seven more games in the regular season before the fun starts. They start a three-game series in Arlington tonight with the virtually eliminated Rangers (this series they wanted to keep at home so bad is going to end up being for nothing, by the way) before heading to Boston for what could be a potential ALDS preview against the Red Sox. The Astros need to keep their foot on the gas, not only to try and pass the Indians for the best record but to keep their momentum going into the playoffs strong.

Originally appeared onhoustonsportsandstuff.com.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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