The Astros Report

A game-by-game look at the week that was for the Astros: Bullpen, bats underperform

Justin Verlander was one of the bright spots in a disappointing week. Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

This week had a little bit of everything for the Astros. Wins, losses, career-worsts, historical-bests, huge comebacks, and anticipated returns. Here's how it all shook out:

Monday, April 9th: 8-2 Astros (Justin Verlander) vs. 4-3 Twins (Lance Lynn)

The first game of the week was a cold one in Minnesota. Colder than the near-freezing temperatures during the game Monday night was the ice running in Justin Verlander's veins. After allowing a double to Joe Mauer in the bottom of the first, Verlander did not allow another hit until the sixth, where it looked like he might be in trouble. The Twins managed back-to-back hits to start the bottom of the sixth, a double and a single to put runners on the corners with no outs. Verlander locked in, though, and in dominating fashion struck out the next two batters before getting a popout to end the Twins' threat and strand the runners. Verlander would go on to finish seven complete innings, keeping the Twins scoreless on four hits and nine strikeouts. He left with a 1-0 lead thanks to an RBI single from J.D. Davis in the top of the sixth, a rare run scored as both teams struggled on offense to that point. Marwin Gonzalez added another run in the top of the eighth to make it a 2-0 lead for Houston, but it turned out to be unneeded as the bullpen trio of Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski, and Ken Giles combined for the last two innings to end the shutout win.
Final Score: Astros 2, Twins 0

Tuesday, April 10th: 9-2 Astros (Dallas Keuchel) vs. 4-4 Twins (Jake Odorizzi)

After being shut out the night before, the Twins turned things around Tuesday night and got the best of a struggling Dallas Keuchel early. Keuchel struggled with his command in yet another game, giving up two runs in the bottom of the first inning, then walking in a run in the bottom of the second. Some could argue that he wasn't getting some calls down in the zone, and maybe so, but Keuchel is usually one to adjust and turn things around, and Tuesday night he couldn't make that happen. He hit the 100 pitch mark in the fourth inning, ending his night short at 4 innings pitched, 3 earned runs, 6 hits, and 4 walks. The four walks made it back-to-back games with that number, a number he only reached once all of last year. Houston was able to get a run back in the top of the second, an RBI single by Jake Marisnick which at the time made it a 2-1 game, but were unable to get anything else done on offense. The Twins added an additional run off of Joe Smith in the bottom of the eighth on their way to the win. 
Final Score: Astros 1, Twins 4

Wednesday, April 11th: 9-3 Astros (Lance McCullers Jr.) vs. 5-4 Twins (Kyle Gibson)

Wednesday afternoon's game induced a roller coaster of emotions, to say the least. After going up 1-0 in the top of the first on an RBI sacrifice fly from Carlos Correa, it looked like the Astros might be in a position to edge out another low-scoring win. That all changed when things blew up in the fourth inning. McCullers experienced quite literally the worst inning of his career as before it was all said and done he gave up three walks, three singles, a triple, and a home run to allow 8 earned runs, the most in a game for his career, and give the Twins an 8-1 lead. Things turned back the Astros way, though, as they spurred flashbacks of the Memorial Day comeback on their way to scoring seven unanswered runs between the fifth and ninth innings to tie the game 8-8. They would come up disappointingly short of finishing the comeback this year though, thanks to a walk-off home run by Max Kepler off of Brad Peacock in the bottom of the ninth to prevent extra innings and send the Astros back to Houston with a series loss and bad taste in their mouth. 
Final Score: Astros 8, Twins 9

Friday, April 13th: 4-10 Rangers (Cole Hamels)  vs. 9-4 Astros (Gerrit Cole)

Friday night marked the anticipated return of Yuli Gurriel, who followed serving his five-game suspension for his insensitive gesture in last year's World Series with a 10-day stint on the DL. Despite hitting a single in his first at-bat back in the lineup, Gurriel's return would be overshadowed by another amazing start from newcomer Gerrit Cole. Cole has a phenomenal night, pitching 7 strong innings during which he struck out a career-high 14 batters, bringing his total over his first three starts to 36, and joining Nolan Ryan as the only pitcher in history to have over eleven strikeouts in the first three starts of a season. On the other side, Cole Hamels also had a decent night but made two mistake pitches to George Springer, both hit for opposite-field solo home runs. The Rangers managed to tie the game off of Cole with two solo home runs of their own in the seventh, the only blemishes to an otherwise perfect pitching performance. The difference maker in the game came in the bottom of the eighth on an RBI single by Marwin González to give the Astros a 3-2 lead, one they were able to hold on to thanks to a shutout ninth from Chris Devenski who earned the save. 
Final Score: Rangers 2, Astros 3

Saturday, April 14th: 4-11 Rangers (Mike Minor) vs. 10-4 Astros (Charlie Morton)

In another role-reversal of a highlight from last season, it was the Rangers on Saturday who overcame a five-run deficit against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. It was Charlie Morton on the mound, who looked great and on the way to an easy win after the Astros found themselves up 5-0 after a two-RBI double from Carlos Correa and a three-run homer from Gurriel in the bottom of the fourth. The Rangers trimmed the lead down to three by giving Morton his first two earned runs of the season, solo home runs in the fifth and sixth innings to make it 5-2. Despite the two runs, Morton still finished with a great line, going six innings giving up the two runs on six hits while striking out twelve. It was Brad Peacock who faltered for the second straight game, giving up three runs on two home runs to allow the Rangers to tie the game at 5-5. After a scoreless ninth, the game headed to extra innings where Will Harris was the next member of Houston's bullpen to underperform. After getting a groundout to start the inning, Harris gave up a walk, double, then an intentional walk to Adrian Beltré to load the bases before having a comebacker deflect off his glove which allowed the go-ahead run to score, giving the Rangers their sixth unanswered run which would earn them the win after the Astros failed to score in the bottom of the inning.
Final Score: Rangers 6, Astros 5

Sunday, April 15th: 5-11 Rangers (Bartolo Colon) vs. 10-5 Astros (Justin Verlander)

In the primetime game on Jackie Robinson day to close out the week, it was a showcase of pitching in a low-scoring duel. There was just one hit in the first seven innings, a solo home run by Robinson Chirinos in the top of the third off of Verlander to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. Other than that, both pitchers absolutely dominated, with Colon keeping the Astros hitless and without a single baserunner through seven innings. Carlos Correa ended Colon's perfect game by working a walk in the bottom of the eighth, followed by the first hit for Houston, a double by Josh Reddick. Yuli Gurriel then tied the game 1-1 with a sac fly to score Correa, but the Astros were unable to get a go-ahead run home sending the game to the ninth tied. Chris Devenski took over in the top of the ninth, ending Verlander's great night, and worked around a two-out single to send the game to the bottom of the inning, where the Astros stranded two runners to set up extra innings for the second straight game. Hector Rondon took the mound in the top of the tenth, and much like Will Harris in Saturday's game got taken advantage of by the Rangers offense, giving up a leadoff single then ground-rule double, setting up a two-run RBI double for Chirinos to give Texas a 3-1 lead which they took to the bottom of the inning and held to win the game and take the series 2-1. 
Final Score: Rangers 3, Astros 1

Summary: After going 8-2 over the first ten games in the extended week 1, the Astros earned themselves a disappointing 2-4 record this week, losing both series that should have been very winnable to bring their record down to 10-6. Other than the early struggles of Keuchel, and the bad game on Wednesday from McCullers, the starting rotation for Houston has delivered on the hype they were given in pre-season predictions and been the bright spot so far. However, this week it was the other two parts of the game, the offense and bullpen that cost the Astros a couple of games. It is quite alarming when a starter throws double-digit strikeouts and has to sit and watch a game flip the other way due to cold bats or miserable relief appearances. No one is demanding the offense be as potent as last year in every single game, especially with this strong of a rotation limiting their need for a lot of runs, but until this bullpen catches its stride they are going to have to give them some more run support. We are back where we were at this point last year wondering when the offense will turn things around. Hopefully, it will be sooner rather than later because the Angels are out to a blazing fast start, and have a three-game lead in the AL West over the Astros. 

MVP of the Week - Justin Verlander

Verlander dominated in his two starts this week, with his only earned run coming by way of that solo home run in Sunday night's game. He combined for 20 strikeouts in 15 innings of work, going seven innings on Monday and eight on Sunday. He continues to be the anchor of the Astros rotation that can keep games within reach while the offense finds their rhythm. 

This Week: 

  • Mon-Thu: Astros (10-6) @ Mariners (8-5)
  • Fri-Sat: Astros (10-6) @ White Sox (4-8)

The Astros get a chance for a morale boost as they head to Seattle for a four-game series where they historically perform very well. However, the Mariners have gotten out to a decent start this year, sitting at 8-5. Then, they'll finish the week in Chicago for a three-game set against the White Sox who sit at 4-8, setting up a full week on the road. 

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Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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