BEHIND CLOSED DOORS

How grievances with Espada from Astros' stars lead us to four irrefutable conclusions

Astros Mauricio Dubon, Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, Jeremy Pena
Winning cures everything. Composite Getty Image.

I was surprised last week when USA Today baseball writer Bob Nightengale suggested that a couple of the Astros star players have complained privately about Joe Espada’s communication skills.

Nightengale’s blind item: “The Houston Astros plan to give rookie manager Joe Espada plenty of time to see if they turn their season around, particularly with their pitching injuries, but two prominent players have privately expressed complaints about Espada’s communication skills in recent weeks.”

Only two? I was surprised that it wasn’t the entire team. The Astros were a disappointing 15-25, mired in fourth place in the American League West, on the day Nightengale’s little scoop ran. Somebody has to take the heat for the upside-down season and Espada is the easiest target.

It was President Kennedy who said “victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.”

Little orphan Joe Espada.

True story: when I was little, my mother overheard the sports anchor on TV say that the Yankees had fired their manager. Now my mother made a fantastic chicken soup but when it came to sports she couldn’t tell you the shape of the object that pitchers throw toward home plate. She said, “Why did they fire the manager? He told the players to hit home runs. They should fire the players.”

I’ll bet Espada’s communication skills have improved now that the Astros have won four of their last five games and Alex Bregman bashed two homers and a double Monday against the Oakland A’s.

I used to work with Bob Nightengale in Phoenix. We played on the same intramural basketball team. I don’t doubt for one second that two Astros bitched about Espada off the record. But nothing succeeds like success and the Astros have crept to within six games of division-leading Seattle. The Astros just started a 10-game homestand, including six more very winnable games against the A’s and Angels. Espada could be a silver-tongued devil in no time.

It’s hard to figure out baseball, especially when it comes to figures. You want weird? The Astros have stunk this season, right? OK, so which team has the highest batting average in all of MLB? Of course it’s the Astros who are hitting a collective .263.

The Astros actually are hitting significantly better, at least as far as batting averages go, than they did last year when they won the American League West. The 2023 Astros batted .259, fifth overall in MLB.

In 2022, the year they won their second World Series, the Astros hit a mediocre .248, 12th among MLB teams.

In 2017, the Astros first World Series year, the team led MLB with what’s now a ridiculously high .282 average.

So what does all this mean? It means don’t give up on the Astros. Don’t give up on Espada. Don’t count on numbers. And players who squawk about the manager should put their name on it.

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Astros defeat the A's, 6-3. Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images.

Jake Meyers hit a three-run homer to highlight Houston's six-run fourth inning that backed Justin Verlander's winning start, and the Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 6-3 on Friday night.

Verlander (3-2) struck out nine over six innings to increase hit total to 3,377, passing Hall of Famer Greg Maddux (3,371) for 10th on the career strikeouts list. He gave up two runs — one earned — on eight hits and didn't walk a batter for a second straight start and seventh time this year.

After another milestone to add to a long list of them, Verlander wasn't sure exactly how to feel.

“I feel like I should be more excited but I feel like I’m a little more introspective and reflective,” Verlander said. “A lot of sacrifices you make in this game, a lot of time away from the family, but I love it, so it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know if as a 21- or 22-year-old kid in professional baseball if I’d thought I’d be in the top-10 in anything. This sport’s been around for so long. Hard to put into words, but a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts went through my mind.”

When his teammates celebrated him once the special outing had ended, Verlander allowed himself to ponder the meaning.

Verlander remembers his first strikeout and he recalls one against Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas here at the Coliseum — and the pitcher wears No. 35 because of Thomas.

“I have a lot of great memories here,” he said.

A's manager Mark Kotsay, a former Oakland outfielder, has been witness to some of those.

“He’s just tough. He’s a Hall of Fame pitcher. He knows his game plan and he executes it really well," Kotsay said. "He doesn’t make a ton of mistakes.”

Yordan Alvarez added an RBI double and Josh Hader finished the 2-hour, 31-minute game with his seventh save for the Astros, who began a seven-game road trip.

After right-hander Ross Stripling (1-9) retired the first nine Houston hitters in order, Jose Altuve singled to start the fourth for the first of four straight hits that included Alex Bregman's two-run single.

The A's drew an announced crowd of 9,676 for the series opener after winning two of three against Colorado following an eight-game losing streak.

Miguel Andujar came off the injured list and immediately hit an RBI single in the first off Verlander and finished with three hits in his A's and season debut — including another run-scoring single in the seventh.

Andjuar's RBI marked the first time the A's have scored first in 18 games — ending the longest streak in franchise history. Batting cleanup, he also singled in the third.

Astros left fielder Chas McCormick robbed Max Schuemann of an extra-base hit when he crashed into the wall to make a great catch ending the eighth.

“That was a big play at the moment,” manager Joe Espada said.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: RHP José Urquidy was pulled from his rehab start with Triple-A Sugar Land because of right forearm discomfort. He has been on the injured list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. ... 1B José Abreu is scheduled to rejoin the club Monday in Seattle after playing at least two games with Triple-A Sugar Land as he works to regain his hitting rhythm.

Athletics: Andujar had been sidelined all season after having meniscus surgery on his right knee. He was claimed off waivers from the Pirates on Nov. 6. Oakland created roster room by optioning INF Brett Harris to Triple-A Las Vegas.

UP NEXT

RHP Spencer Arrighetti (2-4, 7.16 ERA) pitches for the Astros in the middle game opposite A's LHP JP Sears (3-3, 4.31).

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