Can you imagine a World Champion Houston Astros without Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve?
You don’t have to imagine very hard. This dystopian nightmare was on full display during the current four game losing streak, which featured a humiliating sweep at the hands of the NL West last place Texas Rangers.
It’s not just the bats, on Sunday, Altuve’s replacement, Tyler White, the Shark, provided the bulk of the offense for the suddenly punchless Astros, going 3-3, with a home run and two runs scored. The AAA replacement players, White, J.D. Davis, and Tony Kemp, who I call the Fresno boys, had six of the team’s seven hits.
That’s yesterday. It is hitting yes, but it's more; it's lack of direction, leadership, cohesion, spark, a team without its captain and MVP, but mostly, a bunch of guys playing out of position making mistakes large and small, some that appear on the score card, and some that don’t, but can still change a game.
For example, in Saturday's 4 run ninth inning, on the Rangers’ second hit, the relay throw from right missed the second base cut-off, allowing the hitter to advance to second, leaving runners on second and third instead of first and third. The next batter hit a grounder to shortstop that might have been an inning ending double play. Since in reality there was no force at second, instead Alex Bregman went home. His throw was late, no out recorded, when a throw to first would have been an easy out. Bregman’s throw was ill-advised, and although he is a natural shortstop, he has been playing third base for the last two full years. He would have gotten that out from the third base position, and has done so quite famously, but from shortstop he was too far away. It was an error in judgement that was partially attributable to the fact that the player involved was out of position. It cost the Astros at least a run.
The next batter hit a three run homer so the play at home didn’t matter so much, but who knows how the pitch sequencing was affected by having to pitch with only one out instead of two and first base occupied.
And of course the case remains that the missed cut-off to a replacement second baseman may have cost the Astros all four runs under the possible double play scenario, which was the difference in the game.
The Astros made a season high three errors yesterday, including one by fill-in third baseman J.D. Davis, but that does not include other mental errors. They made five in the three game series.
Sunday’s errors, official or otherwise, in the fifth and sixth innings, cost the Astros the game.
In the fifth Lance McCullers, who was mowing down the Rangers, struck out Ronald Guzman for the second out of the inning. Or not. The swinging strike three curve, ruled a wild pitch, passed by the newest Astros catcher, Martin Maldonado, and Guzman was safe at first base. This is not a no Correa, no Altuve problem, but it is a similar issue, a no Brian McCann problem. Most would agree that the experienced Astros catchers know how to handle the infamous McCullers curve in the dirt, something Maldonado will have to learn, and eventually Guzman would score on a Delino DeShields double.
Sunday’s decisive Rangers 3 run sixth inning was much the same as Saturday’s ninth, perhaps worse. Sunday it was regular first baseman Yuli Gurriel, not Marwin Gonzalez, who replaced Altuve at second, and who was the culprit, sort of.
The inning opened with (another) Rougned Odor double. His run would eventually score legitimately regardless of what Astros fielders did later. But perhaps only his.
The box score says that Jurickson Profar followed with an RBI double, but really Gurriel failed to cover second after Profar’s single, allowing him to advance.
Profar would advance to third on a wild pitch, but again, does one of the regular catchers handle the McCullers curve?
The next batter, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, (I find myself far more familiar with these Rangers players than I want to be) hit a routine ground ball to second. Our “second baseman,” Gurriel, wanted to gun down Profar at home, who should have been on first remember, but he pulled his glove up and the ball went into right field, E4, Profar scores. The next hitter doubled Kiner-Falefa home from first, whose ground ball to Gurriel could have been an inning ending double play under the best case scenario and saved the Astros two runs. Any way you look at it, basic fielding at second base cost the Astros at least one run in the sixth, the margin of victory.
Add that to the preventable run in the fifth and the Astros win this game.
I say this not to criticize the players involved, but to point out the difficulties the team is facing right now sans Correa and Altuve in fielding a legitimate lineup.
Nonetheless, at least one of the major problems that has plagued the Astros in the other three losses in this four game losing streak continued today; lack of hitting.
As mentioned earlier, Tyler White, just recalled from AAA Fresno to replace Jose Altuve on the disabled list, got the Astros on the board first with a solo home run in the second inning. In 44 PA with the Astros this year, he has a 1.003 OPS and three home runs.
The Astros would score another run in the sixth inning after a Tony Kemp lead off single, followed by a George Springer double that advanced Kemp to third. Kemp would score on an Alex Bregman sac fly.
In the ninth inning the Astros would mount a rally but would fall one run short. Marwin Gonzalez would walk Tyler White to second, who would score on a Tony Kemp single. With the winning runs on first and third with two outs, George Springer popped up to end the game.
It was not the only missed opportunity by the bats to wins this game. In the seventh inning the Astros had runners on second and third with no outs. Tyler White was thrown out at home on a fielder’s choice, and then with runners on first and third, Springer grounded out, ending the threat with no runs scored.
The Astros were 1-7 with runners in scoring position. In the three losses to the Rangers the Astros were outscored 22-8, and outhit 35-18.
Pitching was the one component of the team that was strong today. Lance McCullers had a strong bounce back game after two very poor starts previously. He only went 5.1 innings yesterday, and is credited with allowing three earned runs, but as already explained he had very questionable fielding support. His 11 strikeouts are a better indication of his dominance today. He had 19 swinging strikes out of 93 pitches.
The bullpen was immaculate. Joe Smith finished McCullers’ troubled sixth with two strikeouts, Collin McHugh dominated the seventh and eighth innings with 4 K’s, and Brad Peacock closed with a perfect ninth. Yeah.
The Astros face one of the toughest stretches in their schedule, challenging the Seattle Mariners and red hot Los Angeles Dodgers next week on the road, and the San Francisco Giants and the Mariners again the following week. The games with the Mariners loom large, as they are only four games behind the Astros and will be trying to gain ground or even surpass the division leaders.
The Astros have the challenge of finding team direction and cohesion without key leadership and rediscovering their hitting mojo, again without two of their most potent bats in the lineup. These two weeks could be the most critical in the entire regular season for the Astros.
Today’s Astro starter Gerrit Cole hopes to stop the bleeding. He faces Mariner ace James Paxton in Seattle. Game time 9:10 CDT.
Box score and videos here.