Astros take care of business against solid foes, going 4-2 for the week

Justin Verlander continues to dominate. Elsa/Getty Images

The Astros had two much tougher opponents this week than the week prior, giving them a test to see if they are still the team to beat this year. Here's how they did:

Monday, May 14th: 26-16 Astros (McCullers Jr.) vs. 24-16 Angels (Andrew Heaney)

The week got off to a slow start for the Astros on Monday night in Los Angeles. After seemingly reviving the offense last week, the Astros were only able to get one across in this game which came on an RBI single by Max Stassi in the top of the third. That tied the game 1-1 at the time after an RBI from former-Astro Luis Valbuena in the bottom of the second for Los Angeles off Lance McCullers Jr. McCullers had a decent night, but allowed two runs, the first to Valbuena then the other to Justin Upton in the bottom of the sixth. The second run would be the difference maker with Houston's offense unable to crack Andrew Heaney who went 8 strong innings only allowing one run before Justin Anderson shut the door with a save in the ninth for the Angels. The win put the Angels in the lead of the AL West via win percentage.
Final Score: Astros 1, Angels 2

Tuesday, May 15th: 26-17 Astros (Gerrit Cole) vs. 25-16 Angels (Jaime Barria)

The Angels looked to be getting the better of the Astros again well into Tuesday's game, including getting the better of Gerrit Cole. Cole had a rough start by his standards, which started in the bottom of the first after he walked Mike Trout to set up Justin Upton for a two-run home run to put the Angels up 2-0 early. Los Angeles locked up with Cole for a lot of longer at-bats, driving his pitch count up early before Rene Rivera hit the second home run of the night for the Angels in the fifth inning. Cole would finish the inning, but with his pitch count at 98 already ended his night there. He left with a 3-1 deficit, the one Houston run coming on an RBI single from Brian McCann in the top of the fourth. Jaime Barria had a very strong game, making it two straight nights the Astros were unable to mount much offense against an Angels starters. Things shifted in the top of the eighth once Los Angeles went to their bullpen with the Astros able to load the bases to bring up Jose Altuve. Altuve was due for something big after going hitless in the Rangers series the last weekend, and he came through with a bases-clearing double to give the Astros a 4-3 lead and get Cole off the hook. Houston added another insurance run in the top of the ninth on an error by the Angels and was able to hold on to their lead thanks to another solid night of bullpen work including two strong innings from Collin McHugh, a good eighth inning from Will Harris, and another strong save from Ken Giles.
Final Score: Astros 5, Angels 3

Wed., May 16th: 27-17 Astros (Verlander) vs. 25-17 Angels (Garrett Richards)

Wednesday night's game was a masterful showcase of Justin Verlander's dominance as a starter. Verlander not only threw a complete game shutout, he did so with 118 pitches, giving up just five hits and only one walk, which came in the ninth inning. He struck out seven, surpassing the 2,500 strikeout milestone for his career. Though he cruised for much of the game, completing it wasn't easy, including having to get out of a jam in the eighth when the Angels had runners on second and third with just one out, followed by runners on first and second in the ninth. Like he does best, he hunkered down and got through both innings, securing his fifth win of the season. Though not as special of a night, Garrett Richards for the Angels had a strong performance as well, going seven innings in the start for Los Angeles. His biggest mistake came when Evan Gattis continued his recent hot streak by hitting a two-run homer in the top of the second, giving Houston the 2-0 lead they'd take all the way to the end.
Final Score: Astros 2, Angels 0

Friday, May 18th: 21-21 Indians (Mike Clevinger) vs. 28-17 Astros (Charlie Morton)

Charlie Morton followed up his 14 strikeout performance in his last start with another strong start on Friday night against Cleveland. Though he only struck out eight batters this time, he still went seven strong innings. Morton allowed just one hit through the first six innings before allowing a solo home run to Edwin Encarnacion in the seventh for his one and only run. That home run tied the game 1-1 at the time after George Springer hit a solo home run of his own in the bottom of the third off Mike Clevinger who was also having a strong night. Clevinger struggled in the bottom of the seventh, though, issuing back-to-back walks to leadoff the inning before an RBI ground-rule double to Tony Kemp,  who had just been called up in place of Jake Marisnick, broke the tie and gave the Astros a 2-1 advantage. Houston added one more before that inning was over, then extended the lead to 4-1 with a sac fly from Evan Gattis in the bottom of the ninth. They'd hold on to that 4-1 lead after a tough eighth inning from Chris Devenski then the save by Ken Giles.
Final Score: Indians 1, Astros 4

Saturday, May 19th: 21-22 Indians (Corey Kluber) vs. 29-17 Astros (Dallas Keuchel)

After looking to be back in control of his game, Dallas Keuchel had a rough game against the Indians on Saturday night. Most of the damage he allowed came right off the bat in the top of the first inning with Cleveland getting a quick three runs on a solo home run by Michael Brantley then two RBI doubles. Keuchel did settle in after the rough first inning, getting through the next few innings without trouble, but would end up letting a leadoff walk in the top of the fifth result in the fourth run for the Indians after a couple of groundouts moved the runner to third before scoring on an infield single. Keuchel's night was done after a short five-inning start and Joe Smith was first out of the bullpen for Houston, but he too would have trouble, allowing a solo home run to Yan Gomes to extend Cleveland's lead to 5-0. After holding Houston's offense in check for most of the game, Carlos Correa was finally able to do some damage against Corey Kluber in the bottom of the sixth with a two-run homer to trim the lead to three runs. Alex Bregman would follow with a solo home run in the eighth, then Marwin Gonzalez with a solo shot of his own in the ninth, but Houston would come up one run short in the failed comeback.
Final Score: Indians 5, Astros 4

Sunday, May 20th: 22-22 Indians (Carlos Carrasco) vs. 29-18 Astros (McCullers Jr.)

It was a pitcher's duel early in the rubber game in the primetime slot Sunday night. Lance McCullers Jr. looked dominant, keeping the Indians without a baserunner until the sixth inning when he allowed his first hit. McCullers went on to finish seven strong innings allowing just one hit, two walks and striking out eight. Although the run support for him was missing most of the night, Brian McCann finally came through for the Astros in the bottom of the seventh with a two-run home run to put the first runs on the board. With McCullers' night done, Will Harris came in to start the eighth, getting two outs before Chris Devenski finished the inning. Josh Reddick extended Houston's lead to 3-0 with an RBI ground-rule double in the bottom of the eighth, sending the game to the top of the ninth. Devenski started the ninth, but after a double and long flyout was pulled in favor of Ken Giles who came was able to get the save despite conceding a run on a groundout.
Final Score: Indians 1, Astros 3

Summary: The Astros put together a strong 4-2 week and won both series against challenging opponents in the Angels and Indians. They did so by continuing to have dominating starts from their rotation, timely hits and run support, and solid bullpen work from their key guys. There is still some shifting around that will happen as the season progresses, as evidenced by Tony Kemp taking Jake Marisnick's place on the roster and Derek Fisher going on the DL allowing J.D. Davis to come back up after crushing it in triple-A. I still think the offense has some work to do, I don't think we've seen them truly get into their groove and feed off of each other quite like we saw last year, but I think that's just a matter of time. All in all, I think this team can scathe by just fine with what they have and how they are performing now, but will likely need to step up in a few areas if they expect to beat the likes of Boston, New York, or even Cleveland in the playoffs. Like we've all said and heard though, anything is possible with this starting rotation being as dominant as they are.

MVP of the Week - Justin Verlander

I'd be remiss if I didn't recognize the brilliance we saw from Justin Verlander on Wednesday night. Verlander did what he has done best since putting on the Astros uniform: he went out and pitched like an ace. With the complete game shutout, Verlander lowered his ERA to an unreal 1.05 which is best in the league, paired with a 0.71 WHIP. Verlander is looking like the dominant pitcher that won the MVP and Cy Young in 2011, and he may be on his way to more accolades like that if he can keep this dominant pace.

This Week:

  • Tue-Wed: (24-24) Giants @ (30-18) Astros
  • Thu-Sun: (30-18) Astros @ (22-23) Indians)

The Astros have a bit of a weirdly scheduled week, getting Monday off before a two-game interleague series with the Giants here in Houston. Then, the Astros will head to Cleveland for four more games with the Indians who they just faced this past weekend, ending their seven-game regular season matchups. The Giants have been pretty much what their record says, a .500 team, and have a 10-14 record on the road. With Cole and Verlander starting those two games, they should both be winnable games. Like we saw this weekend with Cleveland, they're much better than their record indicates, meaning the four-game series this weekend could be tough. Look for the Astros to keep the train moving and work through a winning week. 

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The Texans have a big decision to make. Composite image by Jack Brame

The last few weeks have brought us some very interesting episodes of "As Kirby Turns." Cal McNair has admitted he hasn't spoken with Deshaun Watson and has also doubled down on his affinity for Jack Easterby by saying he's staying around. The franchise's only member of their Ring of Honor, Andre Johnson, came completely out of character by tweeting his support for Watson to "stand his ground" in what most assume is his desire to play elsewhere. Newly hired general manager Nick Caserio has the hardest job in the NFL because he's basically a one leg man in a bleep kicking contest. National and local media are all floating rumors and opinions about Watson's status with the team. Meanwhile, Watson himself has been cryptic and hasn't come out and said one thing either way about his status with the team.

My opinion is that he won't be traded and this is his way of using the leverage he has to get some things done his way to ensure more of his career won't be wasted. Once they hire a head coach he approves of and they talk, he'll be back in the fold and blow things over by saying he never demanded a trade and was only upset about some things due to miscommunication. Blah blah blah. However, where there's smoke, there must be fire. I'll examine some pros and cons to a potential trade of Watson.

Bad news first. This franchise has waited its entire existence for a franchise quarterback like Watson. Finally getting one and having to deal him amidst the bumbling owner and charlatan right-hand man would be a big blow to overcome. This coming year is shaping up to be difficult as it is, but doing so with Watson wearing a different jersey could prove to be a near fatal blow. It would take an additional year or so to recover. The only way this timeline is expedited, is if they get a quarterback back in the trade or with one of the draft picks that they feel can be the man moving forward.

The bright side. Watson is this team's most attractive asset as it looks to rebuild. There are teams in the top five of this year's draft who need quarterbacks, and a couple of them have multiple first round picks. The Jets, #2 and #23 overall in the first round this draft, are the most intriguing destination because they may be bad next season with Watson if you get that pick in the trade as well. Throw in Sam Darnold, who's still young and salvageable, and this could be a hard reset that may not take as long. The Dolphins, #3 and #18 overall this draft, also have a lot to offer. Rumor has it Watson would like to go to Miami in a deal that includes Tua Tagovailoa, who was a guy Caserio liked when entering the draft. Again, another potential hard reset that may not take long if either young quarterback pans out. You could also trade back from those top slots to acquire more picks to help fill some of the many holes you have.

I reiterate, I do not believe Watson will be traded. I'm not even sure his no trade clause is applicable since he's still under his rookie contract and his extension hasn't kicked in yet. The new CBA rules call for stiffer penalties for players who refuse to report, so a holdout is highly unlikely. I'll be glad when they hire a coach Watson likes, and we get the happy family press conference introducing him, so this soap opera can move on to its next episode.

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