Houston's offensive struggles continue

Disastrous first inning leaves Astros in 2-0 ALCS deficit

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After an offensive struggle to start the series where they'd muster just one run in a 2-1 Game 1 loss, the Astros made the quick turnaround to start Game 2 on Monday afternoon. If they could manage a win, it would even the series and turn the ALCS into a best-of-five.

They would be unable to even it up, though, losing after another disappointing and frustrating performance in Monday's Game 2. Tampa Bay goes up 2-0 in the series while the Astros are left desperate for a change of momentum to get back in the series. A quick recap of the game:

Final Score: Rays 4, Astros 2.

Series: TB leads 2-0.

Winning Pitcher: Charlie Morton.

Losing Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr.

Disastrous first inning for Houston

Houston started Game 2 offensively much as they performed in Game 1, doing enough to get into position to score, but coming away empty. George Springer started the game with a single, then moved to third on a one-out single by Michael Brantley, but a tough-luck lineout by Alex Bregman straight at the shortstop and a strikeout by Kyle Tucker would leave both runners where they stood.

Things took an even further downward turn in the bottom of the inning when a two-out single gave Tampa Bay their first baserunner followed by a groundball that should have ended the frame. Instead, a throwing error by Jose Altuve to Yuli Gurriel, who couldn't pick it, extended the inning. That manifested itself immediately as a costly mistake, as Manuel Margot would score both runners and himself on a three-run home run to center.

McCullers Jr. deals, but can only get one run of support

With their gifted 3-0 lead, the Rays got what they needed from Charlie Morton. Despite allowing five hits, he would hold the Astros scoreless as they would continue to strand runners and lack the consistency to string together hits for runs. They would, however, raise Morton's pitch count enough to end his day at five innings. That set up four innings needed by Tampa Bay's bullpen, starting with Peter Fairbanks, who was welcomed by a one-out solo home run by Carlos Correa in the top of the sixth to get Houston on the board.

That was the first run of support for Lance McCullers Jr, who, aside from the bad pitch that resulted in the three-run homer in the first, was spinning a gem for most of the game. McCullers Jr. allowed a single with no outs in the third inning and then retired the next fourteen straight, nine coming on impressive strikeouts. That streak ended with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, when Mike Zunino would make it a three-run game again with a solo shot. McCullers Jr.'s final line: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 11 K, 2 HR, 100 P.

Rays go up 2-0 in the series as Houston's rally comes up short

Andre Scrubb would come out of the bullpen to take over for McCullers Jr. in the bottom of the eighth. He recorded a 1-2-3 inning, sending the game to the ninth to give the Astros one last chance to make a comeback. Houston would start a rally, loading the bases with no outs on three-straight singles by the bottom of their order. That brought George Springer to the plate, who would ground into a double play. That brought in a run, but that's as close as the Astros would come, dropping the game 4-2 and falling into a 2-0 deficit in the ALCS.

Up Next: ALCS Game 3 will be a night game, with first pitch scheduled for 7:40 PM Central from Petco Park in San Diego. The Astros have landed on Jose Urquidy to take the mound, while the Rays have not yet named their starter.

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How Dusty Baker's next moves will shape Houston Astros postseason campaign

Now that the Houston Astros have won the AL West once again, we can reflect on how they were able to snatch the division from the Rangers, and try to replicate that success in the playoffs.

Down the stretch, Justin Verlander pitched like classic Verlander, with 4 good performances out of 5. Which allowed the Astros to achieve their divisional goal once again. With no start bigger than his domination of the Mariners in Seattle with the season on the line.

Based on which pitcher played the best down the stretch, we believe Justin Verlander will get the ball in Game 1 of the ALDS this Saturday. Framber Valdez certainly deserves consideration, but he hasn't pitched as well as JV recently.

But if the Astros have interest in pitching Framber on three days rest during the series, starting him in Game 1 would be the way to go. He would then pitch Game 4 and Verlander could pitch Game 2 and Game 5 on normal rest.

If Dusty Baker opts to use 4 starters in the series, it will be interesting to see if he goes back to Jose Urquidy after his impressive performance against Arizona, or if JP France will get the nod. We assume Cristian Javier is a lock to pitch Game 3.

The other big question for the Astros involves the bullpen. Bryan Abreu has been fantastic this year, and Ryan Pressly has had some struggles. Would Baker change his closer for the postseason?

We doubt Dusty will make a change when the playoffs begin, but it will be fascinating to see how Abreu is deployed moving forward. And clearly Hector Neris is Dusty's “cleaner” of sorts, meaning when guys are on base, and you need someone to shut the door, Neris is the guy for the job.

Which brought up a fascinating discussion. Baker has said in the past that he likes to bring in relievers like Rafael Montero earlier in the game. His logic being if Montero gives up some runs, there's still plenty of time to come back and win. But will Baker operate the same way in the postseason, or is that just something he likes to do during a long regular season?

If a starter gets into trouble in the middle innings, we'd like to see Neris come in and limit the damage and ideally maintain the lead. Even it that means he won't be available to pitch in the 7th or 8th inning.

We just saw Montero come in for Javier in the 4th inning with 2 outs against Seattle, and we know what happened. He gave up some many runs that the game was effectively over after his appearance. And he didn't even record a single out.

Finally, we discuss if the Astros will carry a third catcher on the playoff roster. This would allow Dusty to have more options if he feels he needs to pinch hit when the situation dictates it.

Fearing an injury to his starting catcher, Dusty was reluctant to use Christian Vazquez as a DH in the playoffs until Game 6 of the World Series last year. By then, a third catcher was added to the roster after Yuli Gurriel injured his knee. Yainer Diaz could be in the same boat this season.

One thing we know for sure, the Twins are coming to Minute Maid on Saturday.

Don't miss the video above for the full discussion!

And be sure to watch Stone Cold 'Stros (an Astros podcast) every Monday on SportsMapHouston's YouTube channel.

Listen to ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 FM for Houston's best sports talk.

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