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Game Recap: Astros’ Stand Holds. Beat Back A’s 9-4

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Astros offense explodes. Five home runs give Verlander his 200th win.

MLB: Houston Astros at Oakland Athletics
Catcher Martin Maldonado was just a single short of the cycle today
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

In yesterday’s Recap I drew a military analogy, the point of which was that the Astro’s must, could, and would endure despite recent adversities.

Today another analogy is in order. Let’s at least hope, as Astros fan, that that is the case.

In July of 1863 Confederate forces ventured into Union territory in hopes of a knockout punch that would end the war. On day one of the Battle of Gettysburg the rebels encountered Yankee troops and forced their withdrawal from the town. The Yanks retreated to the surrounding rocky hills.

On day two confederate commander Robert Lee ordered massive attacks against both flanks of the Union lines, hoping to destroy the Union army from the rear. The attacks failed, barely.

Despite counsel against a third day of attacks against entrenched forces on high ground, Lee decided to stake everything on a full fledged infantry assault in open ground right into the center of the Union line.

Despite having to march over a mile up hill over fences and walls against rifle and artillery fire, a powerful Rebel contingent, led by George Pickett, made it to the top of Cemetery Ridge, where they engaged the Yanks in hand to hand combat. As they fought, blue and gray, in a swirl of death, Yankee reinforcements piled in, and eventually overwhelmed the Rebels, who returned to the cover of trees from whence they came, limping, bleeding and broken. Thousands did not return at all. The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of America’s bloodiest war.

Pickett’s Charge is called the “high water-mark of the Confederacy.”

For the last two months, the Oakland A’s have made an unlikely transition from being one of baseball’s “rebuilding teams,” to becoming a legitimate insurgent into baseball’s elite. But ultimately, to obtain victory, the A’s must defeat the ruling World Champions, champions of their own division.

Yesterday the Oakland A’s made it to the top of the Hill, achieving a tie with the Astros for the lead in the AL West after going 13-3 in their last 16 games. No doubt they expended all their physical and emotional energy to get there. Let us hope that this day, August 19th, 2018, will be remembered as the “high water-mark of the Oakland A’s,” the day their brave insurgency was beaten back, ultimately to fail.

This game started out like so many of the Astros’ last eight, seven of which were losses. The A’s opened up early on Astros ace pitcher, Justin Verlander, getting two bombs in the first inning, after the Astros started the game 3 up and 3 down.

Another collapse. OMG.

But come the reinforcements they did, in a miracle third inning. Yesterday I told faithful Astros fans, doubt not the fortitude of a team that could win as they did in Games 2 and 5 of the 2017 World Series.

In the fourth inning of Game 5, down 4-0, and seemingly without hope, the Astros cobbled together some hits against Clayton Kershaw, and even managed to score a run. With two men on, embattled Cuban Yuli Gurriel came to bat. He blasted a monster homer to deep left field, tying the game against probably the best pitcher of our generation, changing the trajectory of the whole series, and leading one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history.

With the Astros down 2-0 in the third inning this time, and seemingly poised to just surrender without a fight their long held dominance of the AL West, with two outs the Astros finally got some back to back hits. First Martin Maldonado, with a double, then George Springer, with a single, and then Alex Bregman, who achieved something rare for the Astros of late, an RBI hit with runners in scoring position.

A run. Three straight hits. More than the entire game yesterday. Hooray.

And then Gurriel. With two men on, another 3-run blast deep to left field to get the Astros their fourth run, a total they had achieved only twice in the previous eight games. It was the first lead the Astros had had in 19 innings. Dare we say it was the high-water mark of the A’s?

If so, then another Gurriel home run will be remembered as changing the trajectory of a whole season. With all his deficiencies, he is clutch.

Here’s his blast.

In case you haven’t gotten tired of World Series replays, and if you’re like me you haven’t, here’s Gurriel’s series changing blast in game 5.

The Astros would need every one of those runs and more today, because Justin Verlander’s recent trouble’s with the home run ball continued. In the bottom of the third he would surrender his third home run of the game, and his second of the day to Kris Davis, who, by the way, has more home runs than any other player since 2016.

Game tied.

Never mind, the Astros offense, almost non-existent of late, could not be stopped today. Evan Gattis lumberjacked his 24th homer of the season in the fourth. In the fifth Martin Maldonado would open the inning with a triple, man, what a treat to see him rumble around the bases, and would score on another Springer single, this one a rocket off the third baseman’s chest.

In the seventh inning the home run feast would continue with Martin Maldonado, yes, him again, and Alex Bregman hitting solos blasts.

Here’s the machete.

And here’s Bregs with his 24th homer, tied with Gattis for the team lead.

Marwin Gonzalez would conclude the Astros scoring with another Astros home run in the eighth.

Yes, the Astros had five home runs today, 3 against A’s reliever Emilio Pagan.

But the Astros were just as rough on the normally very tough A’s starter, Sean Manaea, who surrendered 6 earned runs in four innings.

Kudos to Brad Peacock, who bailed out Verlander brilliantly when the game was still very much in doubt. With runners on first and third and one out in the sixth, he struck out two A’s (after loading the bases with a walk), to preserve the then fragile Astros lead.

Here’s the Pea.

Justin Verlander Regression, Part II

I would like to write another article about Justin Verlander, Verlander Regression Part II, but won’t have time. But considering the importance of Verlander to the Astros’ championship hopes, and his recent but on-going demise, let’s just say I am concerned.

In his last seven games (since July 15th) Verlander has surrendered 14 home runs. In the six games prior to today, his ERA is 4.41, and his FIP is 4.42. his xFIP is only 1.55, but that is meaningful only if you assume his recent home run bug is just bad luck, which I don’t. I’m sure after today these numbers are even worse.

This is not a full analysis, but here are a few other trends I have noticed. His fastball usage is about 68%, much higher than his historical rate of about 60%, which is where he was before July 15th.

Fangraphs has downgraded the pitch value they have assigned to his fastball and slider. The PV/c of the FB was 2.12 before July 15th, it is -.8 since. The slider was rated .92 before July 15th, and -3.62 since. His curve, however, is slightly better.

Pitch f/x data confirms the Fangraphs ratings. His fastball yielded a .196 batting average and .331 slugging percentage before July 15th, and since, those numbers are .310 and .662 respectively. His slider numbers: .143/.286 before. .270/.657 after.

I know velocity hasn’t changed and when I first started tracking this regression I did not notice any significant measured change in pitch trajectory.

If I had the time I would like to look at batted ball data for any changes there. Crawfish Boxes’ own Reillocity has commented on this however using his FABIO measurements, and he correctly predicted that Verlander was vulnerable to the home run. His basis: that he was giving up an extremely high percentage of fly balls to the hitters opposite side, i.e. pulled fly balls, which tend to be home runs.

Without more analysis, I will stick to my original analysis in the Verlander Regression article: that the league has figured out the changes he made since joining the Astros and it has adjusted. His pitch sequencing seems to have become predictable, especially his over-reliance on the fastball. Since the curve is the one pitch he has that has become more effective lately, it is hard to understand why he doesn’t throw it more. But then, I don’t pretend to know one one/millionth of what Brent Strom knows about pitching.

Nonetheless, the Astros will need Verlander to return to form.

That said, congratulations to Justin for his 200th carer win. He deserved it long before today. At last, some run support.

Bring on the Mariners. Let’s put them out of their misery.

Box score and videos here.