THE PALLILOG

A glimpse of promise emerges after a string of Astros disappointments

Astros Chas McCormick, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman
The Astros are lucky they play in the AL West. Composite Getty Image.

No, we have not been transported back in time to 2012 and are again stuck with an atrocity of an Astros team heading for well over 100 losses. I’m pretty sure anyway, even though the Astros are in our nation’s capital for the weekend looking so far this season about as dysfunctional as the federal government often seems to be. At 6-14 this is a dung heap of a squad to this point. The Astros are two and a half games behind the A’s! The rightfully heralded back end of the bullpen has already lost four games the Astros have led after six innings. They are 5-4 in games they led after six, which is awful.

Last season the Astros were a good team, not close to a great team. The 2023 Astros finished 72-6 in games they led after six. Then there’s the offense which has some nice raw stats, but been weak with runners in scoring position (.686 OPS ranks 19th among the 30 Major League teams), weaker with runners in scoring position with two outs (.631 ranks 22nd), and demonstrated meager come from behind ability. The Astros have zero wins in games they have trailed after six (0-8). They are 0-5 in one-run games. But hey, good thing they kept the roof closed for all six games of another failed homestand. Going back to last season the gruesome ledger over the Astros last 42 home games reads 11 wins 31 losses.

As bad as things have been, those already seeking a priest to administer last rites for this season, chill! Be worried, be angry if you’d like, but chill. At least a little. The Astros are fortunate that no one is off to a great start in the American League West, the worst division in MLB over the season’s first three weeks. Obviously the Astros need to pick it up, or they will wind up dead and buried, but the plug will not be pulled on playoff chances in April. They have stunk, but it is also a fact that over the 20 game flop start, the Astros have played zero games against a team currently carrying a losing record. Furthermore, on the subject of 20 game schedule portions, the Texas Rangers had a 20 game stretch last season over which they went 4-16.

JV returns

41-year-old Justin Verlander will be no savior, but starting his regular season Friday night at the Nationals is certainly a welcome sight. We’ll see when Framber Valdez returns. This is the Astros’ second series in Washington D.C. since sweeping three games there during the 2019 World Series. Then they came home, yada, yada, yada. In the four seasons since, the Astros have been to four more American League Championship series and won it all for the second time in 2022. Since taking down the Astros to win the 2019 Fall Classic, the Nationals have posted four straight last place finishes in the National League East. The Nats are off to an 8-10 start this season.

Altuve has been a bright spot

Once before, Jose Altuve has finished April with his OPS over 1.000. 2016 was the season in which he elevated from star to superstar. Altuve awoke May 1, 2016 batting “only” .305 but with an OPS of 1.011. With nine games left this month the numbers could change markedly, but wow what a start to 2024 for him. Altuve carries a .388 batting average into the weekend with an OPS of 1.137. That’s a whopping 225 points higher than Yordan Alvarez’s second best on the team OPS of .912. Of course Altuve won’t finish batting near .388 but if wondering what’s the target number if a career best is in play, in Altuve’s AL Most Valuable Player Award-winning 2017 season he wound up batting .346 which won his third AL batting title. The under on .346 for this year is the highly likely outcome, but wouldn’t feel totally comfortable emptying out the retirement fund to bet on it.

The Abreu dilemma

Between Manager Joe Espada and General Manager Dana Brown I believe they have blown through their 2024 quota of “look at the back of his baseball card” references to pedantically expect everyone to believe that hapless Jose Abreu will be just fine. Jeff Bagwell has used that line too. Guess what fellas? Take a look at the back of Bagwell’s baseball card. He was an awesome offensive player. Until he wasn’t. Ditto Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and a multitude of other players greater than Abreu was at his best and better at their worst than this mess Abreu is now. At some point, washed up is washed up.

Here's a plausible Abreu scenario. He comes up with “back problems” and goes to the Injured List. That’s followed by a handful of games with Sugar Land and/or Corpus Christi. Then he rejoins the Astros. If he then resumes performing at or close to the rotting corpse level of performance he’s produced through the first 20 games, then the Astros release him. Obviously, Jim Crane prefers to not cut checks of 35 million dollars to Abreu for him to not play for the Astros. Paying him to continue to play is worse. It’s doubling down on damage.

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 YouTube: stone cold stros - YouTube with the complete audio available via Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Mariners defeat Astros, 3-2. Composite Getty Image.

Bryce Miller allowed two runs over six innings to pick up his first win since April 17, and the Seattle Mariners used a big first inning against Houston starter Framber Valdez to hold on for a 3-2 win over the Astros on Monday night.

Seattle scored three times in the first off Valdez and then leaned on its pitching to make the early lead stand up. Miller did his part and then turned it over to relievers Trent Thornton, Gabe Speier and Andrés Muñoz to close out the victory.

Muñoz got three outs for his 11th save.

Miller (4-5) had lost his last four decisions, including his past three starts. In his four previous May starts, Miller allowed 15 earned runs after yielding just eight runs over six starts during the first month of the season.

But he seemed to rediscover a bit of his dominant form from that first month, striking out six and walking a pair. Miller said part of the success was noticing batters being more aggressive on his pitches early in counts, forcing him to be better with his location.

“For me (it's) just trying to make sure I'm still getting ahead, but with certain hitters in the lineup not making a mistake just trying to get ahead,” Miller said. “Being aggressive on the corner early and then working off of that.”

Miller cruised through the first four innings and retired 12 straight after issuing a walk to Kyle Tucker, the second batter of the game. But he ran into trouble in the fifth when he gave up three straight singles, the last coming from José Abreu, which scored Jake Meyers. Victor Caratini’s sacrifice fly plated another run and after Jose Altuve doubled, Miller escaped the jam by getting a groundout from Tucker.

Miller again pitched out of trouble in the sixth, putting two runners on before Jon Singleton flied out to the warning track in right-center to end the threat.

Abreu was recalled from Triple-A Sugar Land ahead of Monday’s game and his single was his first big league hit since April 27. The 2020 AL MVP was batting .099 when he accepted an assignment to the minors on May 1.

All of Seattle’s offense came early. Meyers made a terrific sliding catch to rob Cal Raleigh of extra bases but it still resulted in a sacrifice fly. Ty France and Mitch Haniger followed with two-out RBI singles as Valdez faced eight batters in the first inning. He needed 43 pitches to get through the first two innings, but Seattle was unable to add on.

“We had all kinds of traffic and we had some good at-bats when we did have traffic out there. Unfortunately, sometimes the ball doesn't land on the grass like you want it to," Mariners manager Scott Servais said.

Valdez (3-3) allowed just two baserunners over his final four innings on the mound and was able to get through six. He permitted six hits, struck out four and walked three.

“I thought it took him a little bit of time for his sinker to be down and to execute. He just wasn't executing his pitches like he wanted to," Houston manager Joe Espada said. "Then after that he settled in and he threw a heck of a game.”

UP NEXT

Astros: RHP Hunter Brown (1-5, 7.06 ERA) allowed just two hits and two runs over six innings in his last start but took his fifth loss.

Mariners: RHP Luis Castillo (4-6, 3.31) lost his last time out, giving up two runs over five innings against the Yankees.

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