Houston is 3-1 but the future is uncertain

Here's where the Astros stand after the first series of 2020

The Astros are 3-1, but are down Justin Verlander. Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The first five days of the 2020 MLB regular season has been anything but ordinary, or uneventful. From the first game between the Yankees and Nationals going final after six innings due to rain to the empty stadiums slowly getting filled with cardboard cutouts of fans, this year's baseball is not what anyone expected to be watching at the beginning of this year.

The Astros find themselves navigating these uncharted waters, and now have four games under their belt after completing the four-game set with the Mariners at Minute Maid Park. They were able to take the series 3-1 and outscored Seattle 29-16 over that span.

You can't replace Verlander, but don't count the Astros out

The season started, in terms of starting lineup, as expected on Friday, with the potent offense starring George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman slotted 1-3 in the order, and Houston's ace, Justin Verlander on the mound. Though he allowed a couple of early runs, Verlander looked mostly sharp on his way to his first win of the early season.

Unfortunately, everything must not have been fine for Verlander, who would be part of a sport-wide shocking announcement on Sunday that he was going to miss time with a forearm injury. Although the initial reports varied in terms of length, from a few weeks to the whole season, Verlander's missed time will undoubtedly have a significant impact on this Astros team.

The rotation was already somewhat shaky beyond the top three, with Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Lance McCullers Jr. being followed by Josh James, who had a rough start on Monday against the Mariners, in the fourth spot and the fifth spot currently filled with Framber Valdez. Valdez will start on Tuesday in the opener of the quick two-game set. He had nearly an even split in 2019 between filling in as a starter and coming out of the bullpen. As a reliever, he had an ERA of 4.63 with 29 strikeouts and 21 walks over 35 innings. As a starter, he recorded 35.2 innings with an ERA of 7.07, 39 strikeouts, and 23 walks.

Dusty Baker and the Astros have not yet named who will start in Verlander's place on Wednesday against the Dodgers. The pressure will be on Houston's young arms, who will likely have to provide a lot more innings this year than initially expected. Fortunately, many of the new faces on the mound for the Astros looked effective over the first four games. Here is a quick recap of how some of the debuting pitchers did this weekend:

  • Blake Taylor: 2.1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 K
  • Enoli Paredes: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 K
  • Cristian Javier: 1.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 K
  • Brandon Bielak: 3.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 4K

So while we'll wait and see who starts Wednesday, it could be that one of these arms needs to go just a few innings before making way for several others to finish the game, bullpen-style.

Potential reinforcements on the way

It's not all bad news, either. After a time of mystery surrounding when Yordan Alvarez and Jose Urquidy would be available, both have reported to Corpus Christi to start ramping up activities with the alternate squad. The change means that the already potent lineup will get another dose of power in Alvarez, while Urquidy will help bring in more talent to the pitching staff. Urduidy, though, will likely need some time to ramp up, while Alvarez could join the team relatively soon.

Another notable arm currently waiting for the call in Corpus Christi is Forrest Whitley. While the logical move would be to bring your best pitching prospect up after losing your veteran ace, the reality is it's just not that easy of a decision, for several reasons that Charlie Pallilo does an excellent job of explaining.

Even further, the Astros showed on Monday that even if their starter falters, the offense is more than capable of compensating and still winning games. Sure, you can't expect them to do that for each of Verlander's remaining starts of 2020 if who replaces him struggles each time, but by no means does this put the Astros out of contention.

The road ahead

Looking at the schedule ahead, the Astros will, as mentioned, have a tough matchup with the Dodgers on Tuesday and Wednesday, then take their first trip on the road, starting with a trip to Los Angeles to face the Angels who have gotten out to a slow 1-3 start. They'll stay on the road for two more series, three-game sets against the 1-3 Diamondbacks in Arizona and the 3-1 A's in Oakland.

So while they face a tough test with the Dodgers, the upcoming schedule can be navigated, even without their best pitcher, to come out with a strong record intact. Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind that the expanded playoffs could not have come at a better time for the Astros, who could falter without Verlander and still have a favorable chance to make the 16-team playoffs.

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McCullers Jr. out-pitched friend and former teammate Dallas Keuchel on Father's Day. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With three impressive wins to start this series against the once AL-leading Chicago White Sox, Houston tried to extend their winning streak to seven games and finish a four-game sweep on Father's Day. Thanks to a big inning against former-Astro Dallas Keuchel, they would win to keep their hot streak going.

Final Score: Astros 8, White Sox 2

Astros' Record: 43-28, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1)

Losing Pitcher: Dallas Keuchel (6-2)

Rough return to Houston for Keuchel

In his first game against his old squad, Dallas Keuchel would not have a memorable start on the mound for Chicago. Houston made him labor in the first inning, loading the bases though they only came away with one run on an RBI single by Abraham Toro, grabbing the early 1-0 lead. After going down 1-2-3 in the second, they got after Keuchel again in the third.

They ended up batting around against him that inning, including a two-RBI single by Yordan Alvarez, RBI double by Taylor Jones, and bases-loaded RBI-walk by Jose Altuve, which would end Keuchel's day very early and leave the bases juiced. Chicago's bullpen would walk another batter to give Keuchel another earned run, making it a 6-2 game, with all six going against the former Houston ace. Carlos Correa extended the lead to five runs in the next inning, hitting a leadoff solo home run to make it 7-2.

McCullers Jr. gives up two over six

That gave Lance McCullers Jr. a nice lead to work with, and he managed it well. He had one big mistake in the early goings of the game, giving up a one-out single in the second to set up a two-run home run, which at the time put Chicago in front 2-1 before Houston's offense came alive. He followed that up with four scoreless innings, erasing a walk in each with some tremendous defense behind him—his final line: 6.0 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 94 P.

Astros complete the sweep to jump on top of the standings

Still a six-run game in the top of the seventh, Blake Taylor entered as the first reliever out of Houston's bullpen, tossing a 1-2-3 frame. He continued in the top of the eighth, getting two strikeouts in another scoreless inning. The 8-2 score would go final as Ralph Garza Jr. would enter as the third pitcher of the day to wrap things up with a scoreless top of the ninth to finish the four-game sweep. The win, their seventh straight, paired with an Oakland loss earlier in the afternoon, moves Houston into the top spot in the AL West based on winning percentage.

Up Next: This long stretch of consecutive games continues on Monday in Baltimore, as the Astros pick up a seven-game road trip starting with a three-game set against Baltimore getting underway at 6:05 PM Central. Jake Odorizzi (1-3, 5.68 ERA) will get the start for Houston, going opposite of Keegan Akin (0-2, 5.76 ERA) for the Orioles.

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