ASTROS' UNLIKELY ACE

How Ronel Blanco's dominance offers glimmer of hope in Astros' rocky start

Astros Ronel Blanco, Yainer Diaz
Ronel Blanco looks like the real deal after two starts. Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.

Ronel Blanco's brilliant start to the season is about the only thing going right for the Houston Astros.

Blanco threw 2024's first no-hitter Monday night against Toronto, then made it to the sixth against Texas on Sunday before allowing a hit. The problem for the Astros is what's happened on days Blanco didn't pitch. They have only one victory aside from his two starts.

After seven straight AL Championship Series appearances, Houston is considered a World Series contender again this year. And the Astros' record of 3-7 isn't worth panicking about. They've had a tough schedule, facing the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rangers, and their run differential of minus-4 isn't awful.

Houston has been without Justin Verlander, currently on a rehab assignment working his way back from shoulder issues. Injuries to Verlander and José Urquidy helped Blanco get a spot in the rotation, and he's certainly made a positive contribution so far. Christian Javier has also made two scoreless starts, and Framber Valdez has been solid.

The bullpen's been a different story. Houston relievers are 0-5 with 6.89 ERA, with newcomer Josh Hader taking a couple of the losses.

CENTRAL SURPRISES

It's easy to overlook the AL and NL Central, but Pittsburgh is tied for the best record in baseball at 8-2. The Pirates started 20-8 last year, then quickly sank back under .500 and finished 10 games under. So some skepticism is warranted, and the schedule was favorable early with series against Miami and Washington.

But then Pittsburgh took two of three from Baltimore, with both wins coming in walk-off fashion. Rookie Jared Jones has struck out 17 in 11 2/3 innings for the Pirates in two starts.

Just behind the Pirates at 6-2 are the Milwaukee Brewers, whose starters are 3-1 with a 2.72 ERA after the team traded Corbin Burnes in the offseason.

In the AL Central, Cleveland (7-2) is averaging nearly six runs a game, while Kansas City (6-4) has allowed only 25 in 10 games. Detroit (6-3) is right there near the top of the division as well.

TRIVIA TIME

When is the last time the Pirates won a postseason series?

LINE OF THE WEEK

Blanco's no-hitter was the earliest in major league history by date, beating the previous record of April 4 by three days. He struck out seven and walked two in his eighth career start.

It's the lone complete game in the big leagues so far this season.

COMEBACK OF THE WEEK

Spencer Strider's troublesome elbow is a big concern for the Atlanta Braves, but on the field so far, they're the only team above .500 in the NL East. They also have the best run differential in the National League.

On Saturday, Atlanta allowed six runs in the top of the first inning, and when Arizona took an 8-2 lead in the fifth, the Braves had just a 2.2% chance to win according to Baseball Savant.

Atlanta cut the lead in half quickly on Marcell Ozuna's three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth. Then the Braves scored twice in the seventh and twice in the eighth to win 9-8.

TRIVIA ANSWER

Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in seven games in the 1979 World Series, the Pirates' second championship of the decade. Since then, they've lost in the NL Championship Series in 1990, 1991 and 1992 and in the Division Series in 2013. They did win a one-game wild card round in 2013.

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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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