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

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 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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