Series Preview: Astros at Athletics, April 18-20, 2014

Jason O. Watson

Astros head west to face the reigning AL West Champions.

The Astros have dropped eight of their last ten. The reason for this is pretty clear, mental mistakes and the offense. It makes doing a preview for the series very easy. As a team, the Astros are batting .188 through through 16 games. That's 30 points below the next team in the rankings, Tampa Bay at .221. With runner in scoring position, the Astros are a league worst .148, 40 points behind the next team Arizona. If they hope to make any change in the win column that will need to change.

The one bright spot thus far is the callup of Astros top-prospect George Springer. Springer who almost reached the 40-40 club between Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City. He is 2-for-9 with four strikeouts in two games with the major league club.

No surprise that Jose Altuve and Jason Castros have lead the way for the Astros' offense over the last seven days - batting .286 (6-21) and .333 (5-15) respectively.

The Astros pitching staff has kept them in games throughout the season, Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer each went seven innings in their last starts. Brad Peacock joins the rotation for his first start after replacing Lucas Harrell.

***

Alex Smith of Athletics Nation did a killer job preview the A's this series. He was kind enough to send it along for our preview.

The Oakland Athletics enter this series with the best record in the American League (10-5) and the best run differential in baseball (plus-20). Of their five losses, two came at the hands of Felix Hernandez, two more came after the bullpen blew ninth-inning leads, and the came in a game that was tied entering the ninth inning -- in other words, the A's record could and should be even better and they've been competitive in every game they've played so far in 2014.

As is often the case, the starting pitching has been the strength of the team so far. The rotation, led by the young stud Sonny Gray, the reclamation project Scott Kazmir, and the unknown Jesse Chavez, has a combined 2.48 ERA, which ranks second in the Majors. Gray, a 24-year-old in his first full season, can hit 96 with his fastball and complements it with a sharp curve. Kazmir has his velocity back in the low-to-mid 90s and has his change-up and slider working effectively, but he left his last start with triceps tightness and will be monitored closely in his next outing. Chavez has found new life after making the proverbial transition to being a "pitcher not a thrower." He added a cutter to his repertoire a couple years ago, and the movement he gets from that and from his curve and change are keeping hitters off-balance to the tune of 22 strikeouts and two walks in 20 innings of work. He's actually been Oakland's best starter so far.

The bullpen was expected to be one of the best in the bigs, but it currently leads the world in blown saves with five. Jim Johnson needed only one week to lose the full-time closer role, and the team has moved to a closer-by-committee for the time being. However, given that Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle have each blown saves already as part of the Committee, and that Johnson has been sharp in his last three outings, we could see Johnson in a ninth inning again soon. Even with their recent struggles (some of which can be blamed on shoddy defense behind them), the unit still has a 2.72 ERA that ranks sixth in MLB and second in the AL.

Meanwhile, the offense has scored just enough every day to keep both teams in the game. The power has come from Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes (three homers each), the table-setting has come from Jed Lowrie (15 walks, .477 OBP) and Alberto Callaspo (.357/.426/.524), and Brandon Moss and Derek Norris have provided more than their share of run production. Coco Crisp has been good when he's played, but he's missed several games with a wrist injury and hasn't been starting against lefties. On the other side of the coin, Josh Reddick (.098/.196/.098) and Daric Barton (.077/.200/.077) have been total zeroes at the plate, and one has to wonder how long their defensive skills can keep them in the lineup on their own. Overall, the A's are tied for ninth in the Majors in runs scored (68), and they're getting those runs with walks and home runs rather than a high batting average. (Sound familiar?)

This is an A's team capable of dominating in every facet of the game. However, they're also capable of making bonehead mistakes, letting teams stick around in games rather than putting them away, and blowing late leads. They can be counted on to come through in the clutch their fair share of the time, as they've won three of four extra-inning games and came back late against the Angels' bullpen twice in their series this week. There are two things the Astros can do this weekend to increase their chances of victory. The first is to avoid walking Oakland's hitters; doing this will slow down their offensive attack and force them to hit the ball. The second is to work deep counts against their starters; they're good, but they can be inefficient at times and fail to work deep into games, and the bullpen recently showed that it can be exposed if it's overworked.

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