Astros shine in the national spotlight, start second half with series win

George Springer finally got it going. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Astros were represented in both the Home Run Derby on Monday, the All-Star Game on Tuesday, then picked up the second half of the regular season over the weekend. They did Houston proud. Here's the breakdown: 

Monday, July 16th: 2018 MLB Home Run Derby

Just like any other season, the night before the All-Star Game saw the annual showcase of power hitting. With a few notable names like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton opting out, that left the playing field pretty wide open for anyone to take the trophy home. Alex Bregman was one of the eight contestants, and besides representing the Astros was the only AL participant, with the other seven coming from the NL. Bregman was matched up with Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs in the first round. Schwarber went first, setting a high bar at 16 homers, including some in bonus time he was awarded for hitting two longer than 440 feet in regular time. The bonus time was the difference maker, with Bregman taking a total of 15 into the final few seconds where he missed home runs on his last two swings by a matter of feet. Schwarber would go on to make it into the final where he would come up just short against hometown hero Bryce Harper who hit a home run in his bonus time to seal the win. 
Winner: Bryce Harper (Nationals)

Tuesday, July 17th: 2018 MLB All-Star Game - American League vs. National League 

The homers didn't stop on Monday night, with power bats coming alive Tuesday night in the spotlight of the All-Star Game. Aaron Judge was the first to strike, hitting a homer off of Max Scherzer to give the AL a 1-0 lead in the top of the second. Mike Trout took Jacob deGrom long in the top of the third to extend the lead to 2-0, but Wilson Contreras cut the lead in half with a solo shot of his own in the bottom of the third off of Blake Snell. The 2-1 score held for a while despite Jose Altuve getting his first career hit in the All-Star Game, but the ball started flying into the seats again late in the game. Trevor Story tied the game for the NL in the bottom of the seventh with a homer off of Houston's Charlie Morton, but Jean Segura answered right back for the AL, hitting a three-run homer which looked to be enough to put things away in the eighth, making it a 5-2 game. The NL got back to work, getting another homer off of Charlie Morton in the bottom of the eighth by Christian Yelich to make it 5-3, then Scooter Gennett launched the tying two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth, sending the All-Star Game to extras. Alex Bregman, who had been put in the game in the sixth, was up first in the tenth inning to face Ross Stripling of the Dodgers, and as he has done so many times this year, came through in the clutch with a solo homer to give the AL the lead back at 6-5. George Springer was next, and in a fashion that brought back flashbacks of the World Series, joined Bregman to make it back-to-back Astros' homers off of the Dodgers' pitcher. The AL would go on to win the game in the tenth, with Alex Bregman earning a well-deserved MVP of the game award. 
Final Score (10 innings): American League 8, National League 6

Friday, July 20th: 64-35 Astros (Dallas Keuchel) vs. 49-48 Angels (Tyler Skaggs)

After the fun of the break, Houston got back to regular season baseball by kicking off the second half on the road versus the Angels on Friday night. Dallas Keuchel looked refreshed and dominant, so much so that he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning which arguably should have kept going if not for a line drive that clipped the top of Marwin Gonzalez's glove and went into the outfield for the Angels' first hit of the game. Keuchel would give up a true hit to lead off the eighth, which would end up costing him a run after Gonzalez had another blunder throwing a groundball to third instead of first with the runner safe with an easy out left at first. Keuchel's final line ended up being seven and two-third innings with just one run on two hits and five strikeouts; a dominant start to keep his recent hot streak going. That earned him the win with Houston getting three runs over the first three innings on RBIs from Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Josh Reddick. Those three runs would be enough with Colling McHugh finishing the eighth for Keuchel, then Hector Rondon notching another save to wrap up the win.
Final Score: Astros 3, Angels 1

Saturday, July 21st: 65-35 Astros (Justin Verlander) vs. 49-49 Angels (Nick Tropeano)

Justin Verlander was another pitcher who looked rested and in command, pitching a lights-out game on Saturday night. Verlander only had to pitch six innings, but he looked dominant in those innings with eleven strikeouts and no runs on five hits. The reason he didn't have to go deep into the game was thanks to the offense giving him plenty of run support, including RBIs from Yuli Gurriel in the third and Tony Kemp in the fourth to get a 2-0 lead. That was followed by a huge sixth inning which started with a solo home run by Josh Reddick before Houston loaded the bases, setting up George Springer for a grand slam to keep his recent success going and putting the Astros up 7-0. That score held through the end with the bullpen completing the shutout with innings by Joe Smith, Brad Peacock and Tony Sipp.
Final Score: Astros 7, Angels 0

Sunday, July 22nd: 66-35 Astros (Lance McCuller Jr.) vs. 49-50 Angels (Andrew Heaney)

After being shut out the night before and held to just one run so far in the series, the Angels couldn't stop scoring runs on Sunday against Houston's pitching. Despite J.D. Davis giving the Astros an early 1-0 lead with an RBI single in the top of the second, the lead would be shortlived and they would never come close to tying or regaining the lead. It started with McCullers, who gave up five runs between the second and fourth innings including a two-run homer. He wasn't the only pitcher with troubles, as it would take a total of seven pitchers to get through the game including J.D. Davis coming in for the ninth when the game was well out of hand. Cionel Perez allowed one, Will Harris four, Chris Devenski three, and Davis one which combined with McCullers' five led to a horrible 14-run day. Some futile runs by Houston along the way were a two-RBI double by Alex Bregman, RBI walk by George Springer, and a run scored on an error. 
Final Score: Astros 5, Angels 14


Although it ended on a severely sour note, the week overall for the Astros was positive. Even though Altuve was Houston's only starter, it was all about Alex Bregman Monday and Tuesday as he showed he could go toe-to-toe with the power bats of the MLB and the strongest arms too. If Correa could get healthy and back in this lineup, that top four would be the best in baseball with a resurgent Springer, unstoppable Bregman, consistent Altuve, and powerful Correa to punish opposing pitchers. Kyle Tucker is taking a while to acclimate to MLB pitching, but it's still too early to be making any real determinations about him, though it would be nice for him to have some more hits and RBIs under his belt at this point because he's had his chances, including going to the plate with the bases loaded twice just this weekend. Other than McCullers getting roughed up Sunday, this rotation is still very good and as long as they stay healthy are prime for a playoff run. Houston just needs to stay steady, get Correa back when he's healthy, and keep playing their game and before we know it it'll be September and we'll be counting down to another 100-win season. 

MVP of the Week - George Springer

We all know Alex Bregman could easily be plugged in here for his performance in the Derby and All-Star Game, but to be honest I've been waiting weeks to get the chance to say this: Springer is back. Not only did he come through on the big stage Tuesday night with a homer, but he also had a hit AND RBI in all three games this weekend. It looks like he's officially broken out of that slump and his bat is finding the ball again. In all across the three games versus the Angels, Springer went 4 for 10 with six RBIs, four of which coming on the grand slam Saturdaynight. Springer is a streaky player, but a hot streak starting right now could last the rest of the year, which would be great for this team.

This Week 

  • Tue-Wed:  (66-36) Astros @ (53-46) Rockies
  • Fri-Sun: (42-58) Rangers @ (66-36) Astros

Houston has an unorthodox schedule this week, getting an off day Monday to travel to Colorado for a two-game set against the Rockies before another off day on Thursday before facing the Rangers this weekend. Look for the Astros to score a lot of runs in the mile-high air of Coors Field and take that momentum home for the last three games against the Rangers this year.

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The Astros will have some new rules to adjust to in 2023. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

If you are savvy enough to read next week’s column, you will be doing so with spring training underway in Florida and Arizona. Hip, hip, hooray! Astros pitchers and catchers have their first workout scheduled for next Thursday, with the full squad due early the following week ahead of games starting February 25. Spring training baseball is not meant to be exciting, but the major rules changes that will take effect this season will be in full effect in the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, making spring games more interesting to follow.

The biggest change is the death of infield shifts. As reminder or to get up to speed, the first and second baseman must now always be aligned on the first base side of second while the shortstop and third baseman must both be on the third base side of second. Plus, all infielders must have both feet on the dirt of the infield.

There are legitimate points to be made as to why shifts should be allowed, and also why modifying the rules makes sense. I get the argument that if hitters can’t take advantage of an open side of the infield, shame on them. However, taking advantage of a shift is not as easy as it looks.

The best argument against shifts is that they clearly more penalized left-handed hitters. You think Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will miss losing some hits on balls smashed on one hop 30 or 40 feet into the outfield only to have a second baseman make the play? If once every other week Tuck or Yordan picks up a hit that the shift would have taken away, over 500 at bats, that’s about a 25 point difference in batting average. Defenses couldn’t shift in the same fashion against right-handed hitters because unless the batter/runner has Martin Maldonado or Albert Pujols level (non)speed, throwing guys out at first from 30 or 40 feet out in left field is not viable.

Welcome the pitch clock. There will be griping from some pitchers and hitters. Suck it up buttercups! Adapt or die. In the minor leagues the pitch clock knocked off 20-25 minutes from the average game length. The average big league game should not take more than three hours. For darn sure a 3-1 or 4-2 game shouldn’t take more than three hours.

With no runners on base a pitcher has 15 seconds from when he gets the ball to start his motion, with runner(s) on base 20 seconds. Failure to comply is an automatic ball. It’s called the pitch clock but batters are on notice too. There is simply no need for batters to be stepping out of the batter’s box to contemplate the meaning of life every pitch or two. Batters not in the box and ready when the clock gets down to eight seconds get an automatic strike. There are several exceptions, such as a batter gets one timeout per plate appearance,

The bases themselves are 20 percent larger. Instead of 15 inches square they are now 18 inches square which serves a couple of purposes. There will be a bit more space for infielders to avoid baserunners at the bags. That’s sensible. We’ve all heard “Baseball is a game of inches.” Legendary General Manager Branch Rickey is credited with coining the phrase. Rickey is also the guy who brought Jackie Robinson to the Major Leagues, and the guy who basically invented the farm system.

Anyway, back to game of inches. The larger bases shorten the distance between first and second, and second and third base, by four and a half inches. A massive change it is not, but a meaningful change it is. Think of the close calls on stolen base attempts, or a runner going from first to third on a single. It’s not mastering advanced calculus to get that a shorter distance between bases makes it easier to successfully get to the next one. Anything that increases the value of speed in the game is a good thing.

Base stealing will also be impacted by the new pickoff limitations rule. Say Jose Altuve leads off with a single. Up comes Jeremy Pena. The pitcher gets two “disengagements” during Pena’s at bat. Pickoff attempts and stepping off the rubber both count as “disengagement.” A third disengagement not resulting in a pickoff is an automatic balk. Does Altuve take a huge lead to draw pickoff throws knowing that after two non-pickoffs he gets a big advantage?

Might any unintended consequences result from the rules changes? Let’s find out.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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