GAME ON

How Astros are finding new, exciting ways to make Rangers feel the Houston heat

How Astros are finding new, exciting ways to make Rangers feel the Houston heat
Chas McCormick and Yainer Diaz have come up huge. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.

If you want a snapshot of how this improbable, snakebitten, but still standing Astros season has gone so far, the defending World Series champs kicked off their most important regular-season series in years Monday night with Brandon Bielak on the mound.

Bielak wears jersey No. 64. He was followed by reliever Parker Mushinski, No. 67. Tonight’s starter for Game 2 of this showdown series against the first-place Rangers is J.P. France. He wears No. 68.

This isn’t the pitching rotation anybody expected. None of these hurlers was expected to play a critical role for the Astros this season. This looks more like “pitchers and catchers report early for spring training.” Players with Nos. 64, 67 and 68 are usually offensive linemen in the NFL.

But here we/they are. The Astros defeated the Rangers 10-9 Monday night in a rollicking, frustrating and ultimately glorious game that seemingly took forever. But you know what they say about good things come to those who wait. The Astros are only two behind and breathing down the Rangers’ necks for first place in the American League West and a likely first-round bye in the playoffs.

Monday night’s offensive heroics were provided by Chas McCormick (six RBI) and Yanier Diaz (two RBI and the game winner), two more players not expected to play leadership roles for the Astros this season.

These are not the star-studded Astros of years past, with Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Carlos Correa and more stocking the American League All-Star roster. This edition of Astros scratches out wins with McCormick, Diaz, Mauricio Dubon, Corey Julks, inherited pitching ace Framber Valdez and a supporting staff of guys maybe you never heard of a year ago. Kyle Tucker is the undisputed star of the 2023 Astros.

Minute Maid Park was electric Monday, packed with 38,000 screaming, standing fans. If they were expecting a tight, well played, playoff fever game, that’s not what they got. The Rangers jumped on Bielak for two runs in the first, three in the second and one more in the fourth. The Astros took the lead, briefly, with four runs in their half of the first inning, only to repeatedly fall behind. The Rangers had three multi-run leads in the game, only to watch each vanish.

It was a gut-punch loss for the Rangers. It remains to be seen if they can recover from the devastating defeat.

If the Rangers do fall behind the Astros, this will be the game when they walked the plank. They didn’t just snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, they went out of their way to blow it. Don’t think for a moment that the Rangers aren't feeling the Houston heat. They’ve got to be puckered up and desperate. If the Rangers lose tonight, timber! Look out below, where the Angels are playing their best ball of the season.

It wasn’t the Astros at their squeaky clean best, either. The Rangers treated Bielak like a kid playing the children’s Backyard Baseball video game set on “easy.” Bielak, coming off two solid starting efforts, gave up six runs, six hits, four walks, two homers and a wild pitch in 4-⅔ innings.

Reliever Phil Maton faced four batters in the seventh inning and didn’t record an out (two hits, two walks, three runs). Astros pitchers allowed seven walks. Astros fielders committed two errors. Astros batters left seven runners on base. It was sloppy for sure. But a win, especially a huge one like this, is a win.

The home plate umpire had a bad game, too. In the bottom of the ninth, with Tucker on first and nobody out, Jose Abreu struck out after the ump clearly missed a ball 4 pitch. Very upsetting. Later, and let’s keep this between us, I’ve watched 20 replays of Kyle Tucker scoring the winning run at home and I still don’t see his foot touching the plate. The play was reviewed and the safe call stood. Game over. Not complaining.

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Who's really calling the shots? Composite Getty Image.

Who is actually determining how much Jose Abreu is playing right now? Is it Joe Espada or is someone telling him from the top of the organization to play Abreu and not take him out of clutch moments?

Also, could Espada be sending a message to the front office by giving them a good look at how bad he is, and how much he's hurting the team with regular playing time?

ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham makes that case in the video above, but his radio partner Joel Blank isn't quite buying it.

Don't miss the video above for the full conversation!

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