Shrug it off and move on to Oakland

There's simply no time to panic for the Astros

Photo by Will Newton/ Getty Images

After going down to the wire the with the Angels last weekend and coming away with the series win, the Astros went into Monday's off-day sitting 5-4. That had them tied with Oakland atop the AL West division standings. In front of them stood a three-game series with the struggling 3-7 Diamondbacks, a series that the Astros teams of the last three years would have handily won, if not swept.

It looked like it would be one of those types of series after Tuesday's game, with the Astros beating up on Madison Bumgarner and winning the opener 8-2. Even three innings into Wednesday's game, where Houston had jumped ahead 4-0 and had Lance McCullers Jr. dealing on the mound, things felt (almost) comfortable. Then, the roof to Chase Field opened, and the air in Houston's sails was gone.

Collapse in the desert

In what seemed like a flash but also an inning that would never end, the Diamondbacks racked up nine runs to erase their four-run deficit and go up by five runs. Though the Astros would fight back along the way, it seemed like Arizona had the answers to knock Houston right back down into the dirt.

By the end of the night, a 14-7 loss had tied the series and put them 2.5 games behind the A's who were able to beat the Rangers to extend their winning streak to five games. Still, bad games come and go, so the Astros looked to rookie Brandon Bielak to provide a spark to get them back on track Thursday night in the series finale. Bielak did his part exceptionally well, providing five scoreless innings to put himself in line for his first win as a starter. Unfortunately, he'd watch from the dugout as his bullpen would relinquish the lead and his win. Then, later after Alex Bregman had come through with a go-ahead home run, he'd watch as Ryan Pressly would struggle in his second appearance of 2020 and give up the walk-off hit to Arizona to hand Houston the series loss.

Oakland awaits

Meanwhile, Oakland completed their sweep of the Rangers at home, moving their streak to six games and maintaining their 2.5 game advantage in the division. The performances so far this week would indicate that momentum favors Oakland going into the opener on Friday. With a sweep on either side, drastic changes to the AL West standings could be in store this weekend.

In both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the A's finished second in the division to the Astros despite ending with a 97-65 record both years. Throw into the mix it was their teammate Mike Fiers who blew the whistle on the Astros sign-stealing, and the uncertainty of what their outcomes could have been in recent years, and there is inevitably a chip on Oakland's shoulder. Blood could be in the water for the A's to sniff out; however, it would be foolish to count the Astros out.

There's simply no time to panic

In my opinion, it's not a matter of IF those should be worried about the Astros, but rather a question of when would they have time to do so? This season is so compressed that each game bears much more weight than in a typical 162-game grind. A 60-game schedule means that it could be harder to observe and get caught up with long-term trends, which is a potential benefit for the Astros after their recent shortcomings. Instead, the focus is on going out and winning the game in front of you today, which is how the Astros can overcome Oakland and get back on track.

Sure, the A's have the momentum going into Friday, but you put these two teams into a one-game showdown, and you have to like Houston's chances. After going 3-for-4 on Thursday, coming just a triple shy of the cycle, it looked like Jose Altuve had shrugged off his early-season struggles and may have found his reliable swing again. Carlos Correa had an incredible series, going 6-for-11 in the three-game span, including a homer and was showing off his defensive prowess in the infield. In total, the Astros scored 19 runs in the series, proving that offense is not their issue.

The pitching staff needs to get their bearings

With the bats doing their parts to score runs and take or re-gain leads, Houston's pitching has been arguable the most volatile part of recent games. Yes, the Astros are without Justin Verlander and have a bullpen chock full of rookies, but there are few teams in the league right now that can currently say they have their pitching staff at 100%, either. There have definitely been bright spots among some of the younger arms, two of which are in the starting pitching matchups in Oakland this weekend:

  • Friday: HOU - Zack Greinke (0-0, 5.00 ERA) vs OAK - Chris Bassitt (1-0, 0.93 ERA)
  • Saturday: HOU - Framber Valdez (0-1, 2.53 ERA) vs OAK - Frankie Montas (1-1, 2.25 ERA)
  • Sunday: HOU - Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.42 ERA) vs OAK - Jesus Luzardo (0-0, 2.32 ERA)

Though Valdez has had ups and downs, he was incredibly impressive in his most recent appearance, where he came in for 6.1 innings out of the bullpen to help Houston overcome just three innings from their starter that day, Josh James. Whether or not that translates to a successful start, where he has been hit-or-miss in his career, will be seen on Saturday. Javier, though, will be making his fourth major-league appearance, and third start, on Sunday.

In his debut year, Javier has been fantastic, including a 5.2 inning, one-run start against the potent Dodgers, followed by six innings of one-run ball against the Diamondbacks. Over those two games, he's walked just two batters while striking out ten. If these three starting pitchers have their A-game against Oakland, and Houston's offense can keep scoring runs, then that will leave it up to the bullpen to do their job. But, that's been easier said than done.

As mentioned, the bullpen has been taken over by minor-league players getting their chance on the major-league team due to injuries and free-agent losses in the off-season. The one familiar face out there, Ryan Pressly, has a horrible 40.50 ERA after going 0.2 innings while allowing a run against the Angels this past weekend, then giving up the tying and winning runs on the walk-off in Arizona in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday, without recording an out.

Maybe Pressly needs time to re-adjust, and he gets back into mid-season form. Maybe Josh James' transition to the bullpen provides a spark. Maybe the Astros get Brad Peacock and Jose Urquidy back, and that shifts arms around for the better. Maybe Houston gets several long outings from starters to give these rookies a breather to better ramp-up to major-league opponents. Maybe Justin Verlander's injury isn't season-ending, and he comes back to save the day. To me, that's more "maybes" than I would feel comfortable with in a shortened season.

Yet, the Astros still find themselves in the AL West, a very winnable division if they can get and stay in front of the A's for the third-straight year. Also, they do have the looming return of Yordan Alvarez to strengthen their lineup further. So again, while the series in Arizona may have left a bad taste in their mouth, Houston should take it game by game, knowing that they still have the pieces to be one of the best teams, if they can find out how to organize those pieces into the winning formula.

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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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