It was a wild night in Houston, starting before the game even began when scheduled starter, Rangers ace Cole Hamels, was scratched just an hour or so before first pitch. Without a replacement starter in place, manager Jeff Banister elected to go the “bullpen night” route, entrusting starter duties to soft-tosser Alex Claudio. Known best for his changeup and deception, Claudio performed admirably and was downright outstanding for the first few innings, keeping the ball on the ground and getting help from his defense on hard-hit balls.
However, the Rangers decided to press their luck with the reliever a bit and left him in the game into the fifth frame after his efficient effort through three. Jose Altuve touched him up for a two-run shot, the first of three Astro dingers in the game, in the bottom of the fourth, and Marwin Gonzalez took him out to right in the fifth, prompting Bannister to call on Jose Leclerc.
Michael Fiers took the hill opposite Claudio for the Astros, and struggled despite having his best stuff. Fiers had a lively ball tonight and induced a number of whiffs, striking out nine in his six innings of work, but allowed four home runs starting with a leadoff shot to the first batter of the game, ex-Astro Delino DeShields. Fiers’ lack of velocity leaves him no room for error and his mistakes are converted into hard contact at too high a rate for him to be a reliable starting pitcher on a contending club. The Astros will be looking both internally and externally for Fiers’ replacement leading up to the trade deadline over the summer.
While it is true that Fiers would likely not be on a potential Astros playoff roster, his homer problem is not going anywhere, he often struggles with fine command as well, and the team has the ammo to acquire a #2-3 starter type if they feel that this could be their year. Francis Martes could also force his way into the team’s 2017 plans with a string of strong starts in May and June.
The story of the night for Houston was Marwin Gonzalez, who put the Astros ahead for the first time in the bottom of the eighth with a grand slam that represented the difference for the Astros in this nerve-wracking rivalry game. His second home run of the night, it was the first grand slam of his career and put the Astros up 7-5. He continues to be a strong asset for the team as a super-sub who can handle the bat and get balls out while spelling players across the diamond.
Things got interesting in the ninth, as Luke Gregerson, who was called on for the save with a three-run lead, allowed a two run shot to Nomar Mazara on a soft fastball to the outside corner that Mazara was able to loft into the first few rows of the Crawford Boxes. This cut the lead to one and spelled the end for Gregerson who was replaced by Will Harris, who allowed a hit to Jon Lucroy but got the next three batters and sealed the game with pinch-runner Pete Kozma on third after advancing on a wild pitch and groundout.
With the win, the Astros have now taken the first two of this four game set with the Rangers and have won two-thirds of their first 27 games at 18 and 9. They have a four game lead on the Angels pending the result in their game with the Mariners, and are a full seven ahead of 2016 champs Texas. The Astros have not won a division championship as a member of the AL West. They will seek to seal the series with the Rangers tomorrow night behind Charlie Morton, who struck out twelve in his last start and will oppose Texas starter Nick Martinez.