THE PALLILOG

How Astros could be on a collision course with World Series preview

How Astros could be on a collision course with World Series preview
The Astros face a tough Braves team next. Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.

Off a nice two out of three series win over the Toronto Blue Jays, the Astros start their toughest road trip (by quality of opponents) of the season. They’re in Atlanta for three games with the Braves this weekend then it’s on to St. Petersburg for three with the Rays. The Astros are still carrying a losing record (9-10) but that is to permanently change sooner than later, though if sooner is to mean within the next week they have to win at least four of the six games on this trip. The odds don’t favor that but it’s well within the realm of possibility. They almost definitely won’t be settling into first place in the AL West by trip’s end. The surprising Texas Rangers are 12-6 and play host to the sub-pathetic 3-16 Oakland Athletics this weekend before hitting the road for three at less than imposing Cincinnati.

Could Astros-Braves be a 2023 World Series preview? As reasonable a guess as any. The Braves are humming along to the tune of a 14-5 record. In Sean Murphy, Matt Olson, and Ronald Acuna Jr. the Braves have three everyday players off to particularly outstanding starts. Frame of reference: all three have an OPS at least 100 points higher than Yordan Alvarez’s .895. In the offseason the Braves traded prospects to Oakland for catcher Murphy. He would have been a fabulous Astros get but their farm system didn’t have the goods to make a winning offer. Murphy has been tremendous out of the gate. Last year the Braves dealt with Oakland for first baseman Olson. He is excellent. Acuna is back to looking like one of the 10 most talented players in the game after last season getting his game back together following return from a torn ACL. The Astros will not face old pal Charlie Morton this weekend. “Ground Chuck” is 39 but not past any expiration date. Morton has a fine 3.22 earned run average through four starts.

Astros-Rays 2023 American League Championship Series preview early next week? As reasonable a guess as any. After tying the modern record for best undefeated start at 13-0, the Rays enter the weekend at 16-3. The Rays absolutely have had a soft early schedule. Nevertheless, leading Major League Baseball in most runs scored and fewest runs allowed is quite the one-two punch. The Astros have hit 19 home runs in 19 games. The Rays have hit 42 in their 19 games. The Astros have one shutout win so far this season. The Rays already have six. The Astros trail Tampa Bay by seven games. More than 85 percent of the regular season remains to be played, but the Astros certainly don’t want to be heading home from Florida next week nine or ten games off the pace for the best record in the AL.

Can't catch a break?

The sample size that is the season to date precludes any definitive judgment about it, but fact is fact: the Astros are undefeated in the games that Martin Maldonado hasn’t started this season (5-0). They are 4-10 when Maldy is the starting catcher. Maldonado has caught the last four games, which frankly is silly. Yainer Diaz hasn’t made an imprint, but he’s been given scarce opportunities. Diaz never set foot on the field in the Jays series. The Astros have played 19 games and Diaz has 18 at bats. Perhaps with more playing time he proves not up to it. Or maybe he grows with more playing time. Dusty Baker should be more actively finding out. It’s not like Astros’ pitchers all turn stupid and meltdown if Maldonado isn’t behind the plate. Maldonado’s movement behind the plate has deteriorated. He has two passed balls and has also seen stoppable wild pitches get past him. Playing Maldonado less now should keep him fresher for later in the season, and presumably the postseason. If wondering about catching prospect Korey Lee, he’s off to a slow start at AAA Sugar Land. He’s only played 14 games but certainly isn’t pounding on the door to get to the big leagues, batting .236 with a .591 OPS.

Another fact: The Astros are the only team in the American League team yet to win a one-run game. They are 0-3 in those decided by the slimmest of margins. The Giants are the only National League team without a one-run victory.

We're going streaking!

Pretty sure Joe DiMaggio isn’t stirring in his grave yet, but how about Mauricio Dubon sporting a 14 game hitting streak (one-quarter of the way to DiMaggio’s unapproached MLB record 56 gamer)!?! Not even Mrs. Dubon would have hoped he’d be batting .323 at this point. On the downside Dubon has just two walks with 62 at bats and only three doubles for extra base hits. That makes for a mediocre .709 OPS. But last year Dubon was horrific offensively, so mediocre is a big leap and has somewhat compensated for Jose Altuve’s absence.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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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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