Hello, boulder.

How one achievement outside Astros grasp is important lesson on being stubborn

Astros Ryan Pressly, Yainer Diaz
Dusty Baker loves his veteran players regardless of the results. Photo by David Berding/Getty Images.
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Nothing against Orbit, but the real mascot for the 2023 Houston Astros is Sisyphus.

You remember Sisyphus from Greek mythology, don’t you? He was the guy who was punished by the gods and sentenced to push a giant boulder up a hill, and just before he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down, and Sisyphus had to start over again. For eternity.

The Astros’ similar plight has lasted only one year. From opening day, they’ve been chasing the Texas Rangers in the American League West, and just when they get the chance to reach the top of the standings, the baseball rolls back down to second place.

Entering Wednesday night, the Astros sat only one-half game back of the Rangers with the opportunity to earn a tie for first place. But the Astros lost a heartbreaker 7-5 to the Boston Red Sox in 10 innings at Minute Maid Park. So close, yet so far. Sisyphus knows the feeling.

The Astros had another Sisyphus experience at the start of August. They sat one-half game back of the Rangers with another chance to seize first place.

Less than a week later, the Astros were three back of the Rangers. Hello, boulder.

Wednesday night’s loss to the Red Sox was a gut punch. The Red Sox won the game when Adam Duvall launched a screaming line drive off Astros reliever Kendall Graveman into the Crawford Boxes for a 3-run homer in the 10th inning.

The Astros had a golden opportunity to win or at least tie the game in the 10th inning when they scored one run on a Yanier Diaz single and loaded the bases with one out. However, Bosox reliever Josh Winckowski struck out pinch hitters Mauricio Dubon and Corey Julks to squash the rally.

The game shone a spotlight on the Astros best efforts and weakest links. Rookie Diaz continued his hot swinging going 3-5 including a clutch RBI in the 10th inning. Meanwhile Jose Abreu returned from the injured list and showed he hasn’t missed a step by going 1-5 including a rally-killing strikeout in the 10th. Julks has one hit in his last 40 at bats.

With each game passing, it becomes more obvious that Diaz needs to be in the lineup every day – no matter if he plays catcher, first base or DH. If he could pitch, the Astros could have used him Wednesday night to throw the 10th inning.

Diaz is a better bet than veteran regulars at catcher and first base. You shouldn’t need a nuclear telescope or 30-years experience as an MLB manager to see that Diaz, a 24-year-old rookie, is hitting .284 with 18 home runs in a support role. Starting catcher Maldonado is 37 years old and batting .180 with 10 homers. Starting first baseman Abreu is 36 years old and batting .234 with 10 homers.

But with Yordan Alvarez returning from injury, Abreu back healthy and Maldonado the teacher’s pet for Astros pitchers, Diaz may struggle to find a spot.

If Sisyphus were around today, he’d forget the boulder, and push manager Dusty Baker to keep Diaz in the everyday lineup.

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Will the Astros ever give Joey Loperfido a chance to fix the black hole at first base? Composite Getty Image.

So how long do you suppose the Astros will cling to the ludicrous notion that Jose Abreu will return to being a sustainably decent hitter (much less a good hitter)? The All-Star break? The trade deadline July 30? The day the Astros are eliminated from the playoff race? End of the season? End of his contract at the end of next season? Maybe they sign him to a two-year extension?

Since rejoining the team Abreu has played in 13 games, starting 12 of them. He has seven hits in 42 at bats for a .167 batting average. That’s only not horrible in comparison to the sub-pathetic .099 mark Abreu had when hiatus time arrived. Since returning, Abreu has walked once. If you remember or are familiar with Susan Powter you know what comes next. STOP THE INSANITY!

Kyle Tucker’s absence obviously punches a big hole in the Astros’ lineup. Still, that regularly running out Jeremy Pena in the cleanup or fifth spot in the lineup doesn’t seem completely ridiculous, is ridiculous! Pena has been abysmal for the last month. May 11 he put up his fourth consecutive multi-hit game. In 29 games since, Pena has added one more homer with an anemic on-base percentage of .238. Not batting average, OBP. Yuck. All teams solicit All-Star votes for non-worthy guys. Pena plays in the same league as Gunnar Henderson, Bobby Witt Jr., Corey Seager, and Anthony Volpe. Hyping Pena for the All-Star game is plain ol’ silly.

Jon Singleton ever slotting in the lineup fourth or fifth, sigh. He of one homer and 28 strikeouts in his last 79 at bats. It’s just a sad state of affairs that no one below Pena or Singleton in the lineup should obviously be higher in the lineup. Mauricio Dubon, Victor Caratini, Trey Cabbage are all bottom third of the lineup if in the lineup type guys. Chas McCormick seemingly losing almost all of his hitting ability has hurt. Yainer Diaz stinking for much more of the season to date than he’s been good has hurt.

The refusal to try Joey Loperfido at first base is somewhere from perplexing to stupid. Look, Loperfido is not an elite prospect. His poor contact skills may doom him from becoming a quality regular. But find out! He struck out a bunch in his first taste but also hit .333. The low upside of the Abreu-Singleton combo is obvious. Evidently to just about all but Astros’ decision makers. Going with Trey Cabbage over Loperfido in the outfield also underwhelms.

Chasing down the Mariners?

It could all still turn for the better, but the Astros are at increasing risk of fading to oblivion behind Seattle in the American League West race. They deserve to be 31-38. They have a losing record at home, they have a losing record on the road. They have a losing record in day games, they have a losing record in night games. They are 7-14 in games against left-handed starting pitchers, they are 24-24 (hey, .500, yippee!) vs. right-handed starters. It would take a serious collapse to fall entirely out of the Wild Card race before the trade deadline, but the Astros are flirting with danger there too. They have to leapfrog several teams to get to the third Wild Card position, currently held by the Minnesota Twins. This doesn’t seem to be a good weekend to gain ground on them. Not that A.J. Hinch’s Detroit Tigers visiting Minute Maid Park this weekend are anything special, though in Friday night’s series opener the Astros face the arguably best starting pitcher in the big leagues this season (Tarik Skubal). But the Twins have four games at home against the lowly Oakland A’s.

If Minnesota is not to overtake Kansas City and Cleveland to win the AL Central, you know Carlos Correa would love to make the playoffs at his ex-team’s expense. Wednesday Correa banged out the first five-hit game of his career. It’s pretty amazing that Jose Altuve has never had a five-hit game given how great a hitter he’s been and the relatively few walks he’s drawn. Sunday in Anaheim, Altuve racked up his 39th four-hit game. Remember, last September, Altuve hit five home runs over seven innings that overlapped two games against the Texas Rangers.

George Springer is the lone Astro ever to rack up six hits in a game, doing so at Oakland in 2018. So far this month, Springer is six for 40. Springer has two seasons left after this one on the six-year 150 million dollar contract he signed with Toronto. At 34 years old he is playing as if washed up. 2023 was the worst season of Springer’s career and he has fallen off a cliff from there thus far in 2024. Springer is batting .198 with his OPS at a sickly .582.

There is only one player in the modern era (1900 forward) of Major League Baseball to amass seven hits in a nine-inning game. In 1975 Rennie Stennett went seven for seven at Wrigley Field in a Pittsburgh Pirates 22-0 obliteration of the Chicago Cubs. The “Bleacher Bums” must have had fun that day.

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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