NEW BLOOD

From demotion to elation: Astros' season takes a promising turn

From demotion to elation: Astros' season takes a promising turn
Joey Loperfido looks like the real deal! Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.

After a two-game sweep of the Rockies in Mexico City, a heart-thumping, extra-inning win Tuesday night over the Guardians in Minute Maid Park, the surprising demotion of first baseman Jose Abreu to the bottom rung of the minor leagues and the call-up of fan favorite rookie slugger Joey Loperfido … suddenly the Astros season seems turned around.

Even if their record still is 10-19 and they remain dead last in the American League West.

Ah, but only six games behind the first-place Seattle Mariners. That’s just a hot streak away.

The Astros are in it … and right now aren’t you thinking to win it?

One thing is for sure. There is no doubt who is running the Astros ship and is the voice in owner Jim Crane’s ear. It’s Dana Brown, the general manager.

Since the last pitch of the Astros disappointing 2023 season when they “only” made it to Game 7 of the ALCS, Brown has made the 2024 Astros team in his mind’s image.

Gone is last year’s manager Dusty Baker with whom Brown fussed and fought with over Baker’s insistence on playing weak-hitting Martin Maldonado over rookie Yanier Diaz.

Baker resigned (thank you for saving us the trouble) and was out the door shortly after the season ended.

Gone, too, is Maldonado. The Astros never made a serious attempt to keep him in Houston.

Now Abreu is dispatched, too. After an April of historic batting futility, Abreu, a 37-year-old veteran, consented to go back to the minors to find his batting stroke. He leaves the Astros, for public consumption temporarily, hitting .099 with no home runs and 3 RBI in 71 at bats.

The Astros signed Abreu to a $58.5 million, three-year contract before last season – before Brown arrived in Houston. Crane offered the megabuck contract at the urging of then-de facto general manager Jeff Bagwell. At this time last year, it was an open question, who is the real Crane-whisperer, newly hired Brown or Astros legend Bagwell?

Next question?

If Baker had been retained and Brown held sidelined in key decisions, it’s likely that Maldonado would be in the Astros lineup and Diaz again the catcher-in-waiting. With fans still frustrated up to here.

Maldonado eventually signed with the Chicago White Sox where he is batting an even .100 and has Southside fans wringing their hands over his offensive impotence. Defensively, he has thrown out only two of 20 base stealers for a 10-percent success rate.

Meanwhile, Diaz is batting a solid .287 with three homers and 13 RBI. He is one of MLB’s elite hitting catchers. He’s also thrown out six of 23 base stealers for a 26-percent success rate.

Maldonado did have value when he played for the Astros, though. He was a leader in the clubhouse. He led team meetings when times were tough. Pitchers had confidence in him. Fans liked him, at least on a personal level.

Abreu never made that connection during his time in Houston. Despite Brown’s repeated urging to read the back of Abreu’s baseball card, and his kind and confident words announcing Abreu’s departure for West Palm Beach, do you expect to ever see him in an Astros uniform again? Abreu still will be owed $19.5 million next season, so there is that.

When Astros fans woke up Wednesday morning, they had visions of Alex Bregman and Jon Singleton smacking three-run homers, of Jose Altuve and Jeremy Pena’s continued hot hitting, of rookie Loperfido driving in two go-ahead runs and reserve catcher Victor Caratini sending a big crowd home happy with a dramatic two-out, walk-off blast over the right field fence.

Hope is a good thing, and it’s back.

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Mariners defeat Astros, 3-2. Composite Getty Image.

Bryce Miller allowed two runs over six innings to pick up his first win since April 17, and the Seattle Mariners used a big first inning against Houston starter Framber Valdez to hold on for a 3-2 win over the Astros on Monday night.

Seattle scored three times in the first off Valdez and then leaned on its pitching to make the early lead stand up. Miller did his part and then turned it over to relievers Trent Thornton, Gabe Speier and Andrés Muñoz to close out the victory.

Muñoz got three outs for his 11th save.

Miller (4-5) had lost his last four decisions, including his past three starts. In his four previous May starts, Miller allowed 15 earned runs after yielding just eight runs over six starts during the first month of the season.

But he seemed to rediscover a bit of his dominant form from that first month, striking out six and walking a pair. Miller said part of the success was noticing batters being more aggressive on his pitches early in counts, forcing him to be better with his location.

“For me (it's) just trying to make sure I'm still getting ahead, but with certain hitters in the lineup not making a mistake just trying to get ahead,” Miller said. “Being aggressive on the corner early and then working off of that.”

Miller cruised through the first four innings and retired 12 straight after issuing a walk to Kyle Tucker, the second batter of the game. But he ran into trouble in the fifth when he gave up three straight singles, the last coming from José Abreu, which scored Jake Meyers. Victor Caratini’s sacrifice fly plated another run and after Jose Altuve doubled, Miller escaped the jam by getting a groundout from Tucker.

Miller again pitched out of trouble in the sixth, putting two runners on before Jon Singleton flied out to the warning track in right-center to end the threat.

Abreu was recalled from Triple-A Sugar Land ahead of Monday’s game and his single was his first big league hit since April 27. The 2020 AL MVP was batting .099 when he accepted an assignment to the minors on May 1.

All of Seattle’s offense came early. Meyers made a terrific sliding catch to rob Cal Raleigh of extra bases but it still resulted in a sacrifice fly. Ty France and Mitch Haniger followed with two-out RBI singles as Valdez faced eight batters in the first inning. He needed 43 pitches to get through the first two innings, but Seattle was unable to add on.

“We had all kinds of traffic and we had some good at-bats when we did have traffic out there. Unfortunately, sometimes the ball doesn't land on the grass like you want it to," Mariners manager Scott Servais said.

Valdez (3-3) allowed just two baserunners over his final four innings on the mound and was able to get through six. He permitted six hits, struck out four and walked three.

“I thought it took him a little bit of time for his sinker to be down and to execute. He just wasn't executing his pitches like he wanted to," Houston manager Joe Espada said. "Then after that he settled in and he threw a heck of a game.”

UP NEXT

Astros: RHP Hunter Brown (1-5, 7.06 ERA) allowed just two hits and two runs over six innings in his last start but took his fifth loss.

Mariners: RHP Luis Castillo (4-6, 3.31) lost his last time out, giving up two runs over five innings against the Yankees.

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