Nobody thought it would be that easy, right?
Today, in front of half a million screaming rabid midwesterners, the Houston Astros fell to the Kansas City Royals in what only can be compared to a Shakespearean tragedy. The final score of five runs to four better reflected the respectability of the competition during the game than did the despairing feelings that coursed through the veins of Astros fans during the later innings.
It actually seemed more like two games than one. The Astros' bats were unstoppable for the first few innings, and Royals starting pitcher Johnny Cueto looked destined for an early exit. But in the second half of the game, roles reversed as the Royals offense chipped away and finally surpassed the Astros' lead, taking the victory in what felt like a fait accompli from the sixth inning onward.
Both of the starting pitchers, Cueto and the Astros' Scott Kazmir, had been acquired by their respective teams just before the 2015 trading deadline. The Astros sent minor leaguers Daniel Mengden and Jacob Nottingham to Oakland for a half-season rental of the southpaw Cypress Falls (Houston) High School graduate in a move that declared unequivocally that the Astros intended to reach the playoffs in 2015 despite all the odds that had been stacked against them prior to April. The Royals, meanwhile, recognized that if they wished to return to the playoffs and reach the World Series again, they must replace departed free agent and rotation stalwart James Shields. And so they traded three minor league left-handed pitchers to the Cincinnati Reds to acquire Cueto.
Coming into the second game of the American League Division Series today, plenty of questions abounded about whether either pitcher would follow in the footsteps of such glorious postseason-bound rentals as Randy Johnson and Carlos Beltran of yore. The month of September was brutally unkind to both pitchers. Kazmir allowed twenty one earned runs in twenty nine innings that month (6.52 ERA) after challenging for a first-half ERA title in the American League. Idle and somewhat ridiculous speculation among armchair General Managers wondered if Kazmir would even make the postseason rotation. Cueto, meanwhile, was almost as bad in his past month. September resulted in a 5.58 ERA for the ex-resident of the Queen City, and Royals fans felt concerned that the poor performance would last into the postseason.
In fact, neither pitcher was stellar in Game 2 of the ALDS. Though Kazmir slightly edged outCueto in terms of performance, Cueto managed to last an inning deeper into the game. But neither pitcher was terrible either. Their game scores of 49 (Kazmir) and Cueto (44) reflected below-average-ish scores for mid-rotation starters having below-average-ish games.
What happened was...
In the top of the first inning, Jose Altuve hacked at the first pitch, popping it up into shallow center to Lorenzo Cain. Altuve returned to the dugout visibly upset with himself for uncharacteristically hitting a weak fly ball. George Springer, batting second, displayed a more patient approach, eventually drawing a full count and a walk on seven pitches. After Carlos Correa struck out, Colby Rasmus channeled the power of Samson and clocked a double to deep center field, scoring Springer. Evan Gattis followed with a base hit to shallow left field, moving Rasmus to third. But the top of the inning came to an end with a Luis Valbuena strikeout. In the bottom of the first, Scott Kazmir did not appear to have his best command, but nonetheless did the job by inducing weak pop ups to the infield grass to Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer. In between, Ben Zobrist hit an opposite field base hit to shallow right field and Lorenzo Cain flied out to deep left field.
Chris Carter got things going early in the second inning with a single to center field. During Jason Castros’ plate appearance, which ended with a walk, it became apparent that the home plate umpire’s strike zone was much tighter at the beginning of Game 2 than it was in the previous two postseason games. After Castro’s walk, Jake Marisnick bunted. Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas looked to third to see if he could nab Carter, but by the time he realized no fielder was in place to take the throw, he was too late to catch Marisnick at first. With the bases loaded, Altuve popped out to shallow right field. Then, Springer cracked a single to left that plated both Carter and Castro, extending the Astros’ lead to three runs. Correa then hit into a ten-pitch double play, ending the top of the first.
The Royals by this point were in dire straits, as Cueto’s pitch count stood at 50 pitches after just two innings, and they had just used their long relief reliever last night during Game 1. Kazmir began the bottom of the frame by striking out Kendrys Morales on three pitches. Moustakas followed with a lineout to right field. But then, with eerie similarity to the progression of Game 1, Salvador Perez comes to the plate and crushed a two-out solo home run to left field. But Kazmir appeared unfazed and induced a weak grounder by Alex Gordon to end the inning.
Cueto’s woes continued as Rasmus bombed his third #ColbyJack of the postseason to right center field. That’s six home runs for Rasmus in his last six games and nine in his past fifteen, according to the broadcast. After the big bomb, the Astros went quietly into the night, with a Gattis grounder, a Valbuena pop-out, and a full-count strikeout that Carter watched sail by like an unwanted dish at a churrascaria.
In the bottom, Alex Rios led off with a line drive double to right field. Escobar immediately bunted him over to third. Unfortunately, replay showed that Escobar just beat Altuve to first base, and the Royals suddenly had runners at the corners with no outs. Kazmir worked out of it as well as could be expected though, first by inducing a double play by Zobrist, scoring Cain, and then by cajoling Cain into fouling out to Springer.
Gosh, how to describe the exciting action in the top of the fourth? How about like this: The Astros basically let Cueto cruise through the frame on what seemed like two or fewer pitches. Castro ground out. Marisnick earned an ugly swinging strikeout. And Altuve –again—swung at the first pitch he saw and flew out to center. Ultimately a forgettable half-inning that gave Kazmir no rest at all after his tough third.
Not to be outdone, the Royals followed suit by doing…exactly the same thing. Hosmer grounded out to second base, followed by a strikeout swinging by Morales and a fly out to center field by Moustakas. Other than the sequence of outs being identical between the top and bottom of the inning, the only noteworthy observation was that Kazmir seemed dialed in, reaching 95 mph with his fastball and hitting his spots.
In the fifth inning, Carlos Correa fouled a ball off the outside of his upper knee, and in a scary moment, looked like he wasn’t going to get off the ground without assistance. But the Astros trainer came out for a deep tissue massage, bath oils, acupuncture, and a backrub, so Correa stayed in to strike out. Rasmus walked to reach base for the third time, but all of this action was sandwiched by the slices of bread that were a Springer ground out and a Gattis fly out.
Kazmir seemed to struggle through his turn in the fifth, prompting general malcontent by the peanut gallery. Despite perception that he was starting to lose control of his pitches, Kazmir struck out Perez and Escobar and coaxed a fly out by Rios, with no damage done in the inning. But by the end of the fifth, Kazmir stood at almost 90 pitches.
You know what? The sixth inning wasn't fun at all. So we're going to make it fun. Know what a Madlib is? We're gonna do that.
Here's how it works: Copy/Paste everything between the marked sections into the comments below. Fill out the list of word types with a word of your choice (no cheating by looking at the paragraph first!). Then, fill out the blanks in the sixth inning recap with those words. Click the POST button, and let hilarity ensue. I'll post the real recap in the first comment as an example. Okay? GO!
P.S. Please try your darndest to abide by community guidelines and keep profanity at a minimum. If you need profanity in order to be hilarious, you've got a lot to learn about comedy.
############ BEGIN COPY / PASTE HERE #####################
famous person -
Hall of fame baseball player -
noun (plural) –
verb (past tense)
In the sixth inning, the Astros filled a paper bag full of noun(plural) and lit it on fire. No seriously, that’s exactly what happened. The offense pulled an incredible verb(ing) trick after the third inning that they adverb maintained throughout the rest of the game.
Kazmir stayed in to verb the Royals despite his high-ish noun count, but that was really no big deal. He allowed a hard-hit double to Cain (again), and manager A.J. Hinch brought in lefty Oliver Perez to verb lefty Eric Hosmer, because lefty famous person wasn’t quite lefty enough for the task. Anyway, a noun, noun, and a noun later, along with a cringe-worthy diatribe against the defensive shift by Hall of Fame Baseball Player in the booth, and Perez exited with the bases verb(ed). He got verb(ed) to death, so there’s a little bit of noun lining. He wasn’t adverb terrible. He just got terrible noun(plural). If that sounds like a weak excuse, it kinda is, but it’s also kinda excusable-ish. Anyway Josh Fields verb(ed) the noun up about as well as could be expected. He walked in a run that seemed entirely due to first-time playoff jitters, then verb(ed) the next two batters to end the inning. The score was tied after the (noun).############ END COPY / PASTE HERE #####################
That was fun.
Innings 7 through 9
In the interest of avoiding tedium, I’ll condense the last three innings into one blurb. Suffice to say, the Astros did not score, nor did they threaten to. The Royals earned another run on a sharp single by Zobrist that scored Escobar, who had reached on a triple. The triple only occurred because Jake Marisnick couldn’t quite pull off a miracle catch like he usually does. He must be under the weather.
Anyway, the Astros lost by a score of 5 to 4. In all, it wasn't a bad game. But it wasn't good either. No spectacular plays worth remembering. Only a couple home runs. No errors. Not many strikeouts. For a playoff game, there was distressingly little drama. But still, it's important to remember that the Astros stole a game from the Royals at their home in the division series, and will be playing the next two games in front of a Houston home crowd, in a park where they rarely lose.
At one point, the Astros had an 82% chance of winning the game, per Fangraphs' win expectancy calculations. But the Royals kept chipping away little by little. Inning six proved to be too much to overcome, and the Royal's fearsome bullpen utterly shut down the Astros offense.
What happens next...
The Astros face the Royals for Game 3 of the American League Division Series at home on Sunday. First pitch will be thrown by Edison Volquez (13-9, 3.55 ERA) at 3:00 PM central time. The Astros will carefully groom the beard of Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA) to remove any lice, ticks, elves, or other pests that might distract him from continuing his non-losing ways at Minute Maid Park.