THE PALLILOG

Astros clawing back: Here's why you shouldn't count them out

Astros Alex Bregman, Josh Hader, Yordan Alvarez
The Astros host the Orioles on Friday night. Composite Getty Image.

Say it with me: The Astros aren’t dead yet. The Astros aren’t dead yet. The Astros aren’t dead yet! The odds favor them missing the postseason for the first time since 2016, but they definitely aren’t dead yet. Too much season left.

The Astros sure hope they hit their season standings rock bottom in falling 10 games back of Seattle in the American League West Tuesday. Two wins over the hapless White Sox later, coupled with two Mariner losses in Cleveland, and the deficit is eight going into the weekend. The Astros’ real race may be for a Wild Card. On that front they sit six games behind Minnesota, six and a half back of Kansas City. The Twins and Royals currently hold the second and third Wild Card slots. The Astros also trail Boston by five games.

The Astros’ season needs some positive jolts if it is not to slip away. A shot at one comes Friday night with pitcher Jake Bloss called up from Double-A Corpus Christi for his Major League debut. He is merely tasked with facing the best offense in the AL as the Baltimore Orioles visit Minute Maid Park this weekend. Bloss was the Astros’ third round draft pick last summer. He turns 23 on Sunday. He started well this season at High-A Asheville earning the move up to AA. As a Hook, Bloss was spectacular in posting a 1.61 earned run average over eight starts with a scant 19 hits allowed over 44 2/3 innings. Bloss gets the fast big league call out of necessity (with Justin Verlander on the injured list), because he excelled, and because the Astros have no significant pitching prospect knocking at the door from Triple-A Sugar Land. Not one guy in the Space Cowboys’ rotation has given up fewer hits than he has thrown innings. The Pacific Coast League is a hitters’ league, but that is a damning stat.

Blame game

With the Astros’ season a big fail to this point, it is the nature of the beast for some to call for the head(s) of Manager Joe Espada and/or General Manager Dana Brown. Espada has certainly not distinguished himself as some brilliant rookie skipper, but blaming numerous lackluster player performances on him is classic scapegoating. Brown is in his second season and does have a couple of stains on his early record, but the foremost task Brown was charged with at hire was rejuvenating the Astros’ weak farm system. It takes two or three draft classes to infuse some depth of young talent. If the Astros are sellers as the trade deadline approaches, selling is another avenue through which Brown tries to add good prospects.

Brown picked Bloss. Brown’s first first round pick was shortstop Brice Matthews who also recently earned promotion to Corpus Christi. If Jeremy Pena doesn’t show improvement, and if Matthews is fulfilling his potential, he could be challenging for the shortstop job by the end of next season. 2023 second round pick, pitcher Alonzo Tredwell, has been bad so far with the Low-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers.

Midsummer Classic

The first phase of All-Star balloting ends Thursday at 11AM Central Time. The Astros’ representation on the American League team is simple: three definites and one maybe. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and Yordan Alvarez all rightfully are poised to be elected starters. Altuve has to hold off the Rangers’ Marcus Semien, but at minimum will be added as a reserve. For Altuve it will be his ninth All-Star team, adding on to his franchise record after not making the team last year because he missed the first month and a half of the season with a broken thumb.

Tucker and Alvarez will both become three-time All-Stars. Neither has been voted a starter before. Even with the time he’s missing on the injured list, Tucker belongs in the outfield with the Yankees’ superstar combo of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. Alvarez’s opportunity to win the vote at designated hitter opened up when Shohei Ohtani switched leagues in signing with the Dodgers.

Last year the Texas Rangers dominated the AL lineup with five starters. It was not an omen that they would go on to win the World Series. This year Arlington hosts the game at Globe Life Field, but Semien is the only Ranger anywhere close to the lead in the fan voting.

As for the one Astro All-Star maybe, that is Ronel Blanco. The 30-year-old has come out of nowhere to be the Astros’ ace, but he is not a lock. I don’t think his foreign substance suspension hurts much other than it factors into Blanco having pitched fewer innings than almost all other candidates. It’s a matter of math. A maximum of nine starting pitchers make the squad, there may only be eight taken. It’s not hard to name nine guys who could get the nod over Blanco, especially when you factor in that every team must be represented. Tyler Anderson is the most deserving Angel. Erick Fedde or Garret Crochet is the most deserving White Sox (Sock?). The Seattle Mariners have no deserving everyday player, though some might argue Cal Raleigh if three catchers are taken. The M’s are dominating the AL West on the back of stellar starting pitching. It’s hard to see no Mariner starter getting picked, although only Logan Gilbert at 2.93 has an earned run average within 0.50 of Blanco’s 2.43. Blanco has three more starts to strengthen his case before the staff is named July 7.

*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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Astros beat the Mariners 4-2. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

Jake Meyers hit a go-ahead two-run homer off former Houston reliever Ryne Stanek in the seventh inning, and the Astros beat the Seattle Mariners 4-2 on Saturday night to take sole possession of the AL West lead for the first time this year.

Stuck playing catchup through the first 3½ months of the season, Houston has won six of eight to climb into first place all alone.

Seattle lost its fifth straight and fell out of first place for the first time since May 11.

Meyers drove a 1-2 pitch from Stanek (6-3) to right-center field for his 11th homer. Stanek opened the inning by walking Jeremy Peña, and the homer by Meyers cost George Kirby the chance at a victory after he allowed one run in six innings.

Yainer Diaz added a solo homer in the eighth off reliever Trent Thornton that bounced off the top of the wall.

Julio Rodríguez snapped Seattle’s 14-inning scoreless drought when his two-run homer off Framber Valdez gave the Mariners a 2-1 lead in the sixth. It was his 11th of the season and Rodríguez nearly hit a second longball in the eighth off Ryan Pressly only to watch Trey Cabbage make a leaping catch at the wall in right field.

It was one of two terrific defensive plays by the Astros in the eighth as Joey Loperfido ended the inning with a diving grab of Mitch Garver’s drive into the left-field corner and saved one run from scoring.

Valdez pitched 5 2/3 innings. He allowed three hits, four walks and struck out six. Tayler Scott (7-3) got the final out of the sixth before Bryan Abreu, Pressly and Josh Hader closed out the final three innings. Hader earned his 20th save.

Kirby allowed four hits and struck out six. Houston’s only run off him came on Peña’s infield single that scored Alex Bregman in the fourth.

UNUSUAL STRIKEOUT

Houston slugger Yordan Alvarez struck out to end the first inning when he was called for a pitch-clock violation for not being ready in the box prior to a 3-2 delivery from Kirby.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: RHPs Justin Verlander (neck discomfort) and Luis Garcia (Tommy John surgery) threw bullpens. Verlander threw about 40 pitches with increased intensity, while Garcia threw 15 pitches. Both are expected to throw again sometime early next week. … C Victor Caratini (hip) was expected to catch for a second straight day at Double-A Corpus Christi.

UP NEXT

Astros: RHP Ronel Blanco (9-4, 2.56 ERA) has allowed three earned runs or fewer in seven straight starts, but lost to Texas in his last outing before the All-Star break.

Mariners: RHP Bryan Woo (3-1, 2.45) will make just his second start since June 24. Woo allowed four runs in 3 1/3 innings on July 12.

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