Justin Verlander is looking his best, but what about the rest of Houston's roster? Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images.
With the delayed start to the 2022 MLB regular season, we currently have 22 games in the books for the Houston Astros as the calendar turns to May 2nd. Houston sits at an even 11-11 over that span, with highlights and lowlights along the way, but overall puts them lagging in the AL West division, looking 3.5 games up to the Angels in first and one game up to the Mariners in second.
It's certainly no time to panic, just as it's too early to fully buy into red-hot starts by other teams, yet there are plenty of games behind us to look at specific themes the Astros have given us.
Trouble with formidable foes
One of Houston's toughest matchups in this first month was against the Toronto Blue Jays, who they faced six times over that span, three at home and three on the road. While the matchups were exciting and had a playoff-caliber feel to them, Houston walked away with a 2-4 record in those games, showing some hot-and-cold offense along the way.
The two wins, an 8-7 extra-inning walk-off at home and an 11-7 win in Toronto, were both led by the bats, while their offense combined for just eight runs in the other four games. While it certainly seems like Houston will be able to take advantage of several easily-winnable series throughout May and beyond, it's clear that they have some work to do, including getting more wins against the AL's best, to get back on top of the power rankings for the American League.
More consistency at the plate
While we've seen this play out before, and we know what the core pieces of Houston's lineup are capable of when they are at their best, they certainly aren't there yet in 2022. The Astros currently have just four players hitting at or above .250, with Kyle Tucker finally getting back to that mark after a rough stretch in April. The other three are Yordan Alvarez (.258), Michael Brantley (.274), and team-leading Chas McCormick, who, despite playing a few fewer games, still has a .288 average.
Jeremy Pena, who started hot and stayed above .300 most of the first half of April, has cooled off to a .211, an average currently shared by Yuli Gurriel, last year's AL batting champion. It's often been said that "as Altuve goes, the Astros go," and if that's the case, his disappointing .167 average, although it's unlikely to stay that way, shows that Houston hasn't had the best start at the plate.
Their .214 team average puts them 11th in the American League, along with their 10th-best on-base percentage and 8th-best slugging percentage, leaving more to be desired from a lineup that everyone knows is capable of much more.
Doing more at home
Houston also has dealt with a travel-heavy start to this season, with sixteen of their games away from Minute Maid Park compared to six at home. While the Astros have gotten out to a 2-4 start at home so far, they will look to improve on that and take advantage of the home crowd's energy as they go into the rest of May with a more even split of home and away (14 vs. 14 to get to the end of May).
The first of the two homestands of the month starts Monday night as they welcome the Mariners, setting up a three-game battle for second place in the division as both try to reel back in the Angels. Then, they'll have a four-game set with the Tigers this weekend, then return home from May 19th to May 25th with a series against the Rangers and Guardians.
The long haul of May
Speaking of that stretch, you'll notice that there are 29 games in May, including Sunday's loss to the Blue Jays. Houston has just two off days the whole month, coming on Monday, May 9th, as they transition from a homestand to a road trip, and then Thursday, May 26th, where they will do the same. Dusty Baker opted to bring a sixth pitcher into the rotation to compensate for this grueling stretch, Cristian Javier, who has had plenty of success as a long reliever in recent memory.
Javier did well in his first start of the season against the Rangers on April 27th, going five innings while allowing two runs to Texas and reaching 84 pitches to earn him a win. Using a six-man rotation affords the Astros to take care of their starters, who are already missing Lance McCullers Jr., who expect to enter the fray in the middle of the season to strengthen their pitching staff further. One would also suspect that Baker will continue to sprinkle in off-days for players to try and keep them as healthy as possible.
On the topic of injuries, Houston has dealt with some while having some positive returns from others. McCullers Jr. will still have a long road to his recovery ahead of him, but it appears Jose Altuve, who last played on April 18th and went on the IL two days later, will make his return from a hamstring strain in the series opener against the Mariners on Monday night.
Justin Verlander, who many were cautiously optimistic about watching his return from Tommy John surgery, appears to be back to full form. He most recently reached 91 pitches in a seven-inning win, bringing him to 2-1 on the early season with a 1.73 ERA, 28 strikeouts, and a league-leading WHIP at 0.69. Ryan Pressly, meanwhile, remains on the 10-day IL with a knee issue, with no particular timetable for a return just yet.
Other than Altuve and Pressly's trips to the IL, the Astros have avoided any other significant injuries and will hope to keep it that way as they continue to navigate through the long MLB season, which followed a shortened spring. If they can do that and get a little more consistent at the plate, they will likely find themselves right back on top of the division and one of the best in the American League.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 36 points and Chet Holmgren added 29 to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 123-110 victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday night.
The Thunder won their fifth straight to move into a tie with Minnesota for first place in the Western Conference.
Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault was impressed with how his team responded after falling behind by 16 points in the second quarter.
“We had some poise, but it was more urgency,” he said. “I thought tonight was a recognition of, if we kept playing like that, they could have run us off the floor.”
Oklahoma City was up by eight points with less than seven minutes left before scoring the next nine points, capped by 3-pointers from Jalen Williams and Gilgeous-Alexander to push the advantage to 115-98 with 3 ½ minutes to go.
Fred VanVleet and Jabari Smith Jr. had 20 points apiece for the Rockets in the first of consecutive games between these teams. Alperen Sengun added 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Smith led the team with 17 boards.
“They tightened up a little bit and we didn't execute as well as we needed to,” VanVleet said. “That's the way it goes sometimes.”
The teams meet again Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
The Thunder held a four-point lead to start the fourth and used a 12-2 run to push their advantage to 99-85 with 9 ½ minutes to go. Holmgren had the first nine points in that span and had two dunks and a 3-pointer.
Houston got within 104-95 a couple of minutes later. Dillon Brooks and VanVleet both made 3s for Houston to trim the deficit, but the Rockets were unable to get any closer.
“Once we got the ball churning and moving… that got us flowing,” Holmgren said. “But it started with defense, getting stops and allowing us to get out in transition.”
The Rockets were up by nine with about eight minutes to go in the third before Oklahoma City used a 16-2 run to take an 80-75 lead with less than three minutes left in the quarter.
“The physicality we really amped up midway through the second quarter,” Daigneault said. “That was the game right there and we really kept it going in the second half.”
Williams started the run with a 3-pointer and Isaiah Joe added a 3 in that stretch to allow the Thunder to go on top.
The Rockets scored the next six points to regain the lead, but Oklahoma City ended the quarter with a 7-2 run to take an 87-83 lead in the fourth.
“Obviously you have to execute better offensively to give yourself a chance,” VanVleet said. “Scoring 21 in the third hurt us a little bit momentum-wise.”