With the American West League title all but a lost cause in 2020, the goal for the Houston Astros shifts to finishing in second place in the division, which would ensure a top-six seed in this year’s expanded postseason. But even that is not a given, as the hard-charging Seattle Mariners entered Tuesday just 1.5 games behind the Astros for second place. Houston returned home for their final six home games of the regular season against the two West division cellar dwellers in Texas and Arizona.
George Springer did what he has done best throughout his career, Alex Bregman once again was clutch, and a strong pitching performance by Jose Urquidy led the Astros to an 4-1 series-opening win over the Rangers.
Springer destroyed the fourth offering from Kyle Cody in the bottom of the first well over the left-center field wall, marking the 39th leadoff home run of his career and the 11th time he has done so against Texas.
In baseball, especially in a pennant race, you need to hit with runners in scoring position to be successful. That didn’t happen early on Tuesday for the Astros and it appeared it might come back to bite them. Take the second inning. With the bases loaded and nobody out, Josh Reddick hit a weak tapper back to Cody, who started an easy 1-2-3 double play. Martin Maldonado then popped out and that silver platter of an opportunity was wasted.
It was more of the same in the next couple of frames. Houston left runners at the corners in the third and a man on second base in the fourth. After the Rangers tied the game in the fifth, Kyle Tucker grounded out into the shift with two in scoring position to end that threat.
On the mound, things went swimmingly as possibly for Urquidy in his third start of the year. He retired the first 13 batters in order, fanning five during the stretch. But Nick Solak broke up the perfect game with a one-out single in the fifth, which was followed by another knock by Rougned Odor. An out later, Ronald Guzman singled to right to tie it before Urquidy fanned Sam Huff to escape the mess at 1-1.
The injury bug...the Astros just can’t seem to avoid it, can they? Carlos Correa left the game in the sixth inning after fouling a ball off his left leg. He was in obvious pain and had to be helped off the field by trainers. Jack Mayfield pinch hit for him and whiffed, but to make matters even worse for Correa - the strikeout was charged to his stat line because Mayfield inherited an 0-2 count.
Urquidy finished off his masterful outing in the seventh when Jose Altuve snagged a line drive hit by Odor. The right-hander was efficient, requiring only 90 pitches to record 21 outs, giving up three hits (all in the fifth) and one run, while not walking a batter and punching out seven.
Nick Goody entered for Texas after the stretch and Martin Maldonado greeted him with a deep leadoff double to center. Springer and Altuve each worked a walk, again loading the bases with no outs. Exit Goody, enter Jonathan Hernandez, who didn’t fare any better. After an out, Alex Bregman dumped a perfectly placed single down the left-field line, plating Springer and Altuve for a 3-1 Houston advantage.
Brooks Raley delivered the goods in the eighth as he shut down the Rangers in order, then it was Maldonado insurance time in the bottom half. The catcher mashed a two-out solo homer to left, marking the second straight game at Minute Maid Park in which he has gone deep. He did so on Sept. 3 - also against Texas.
Ryan Pressly surrendered just a two-out single in the ninth for his tenth save of the year. The pitching staff was excellent, allowing just four baserunners all night. Maldonado deserves much praise as well for his work behind the plate and going 2-for-4 with a pair of extra-base hits.
The hopes of a fourth consecutive division title for the Astros are not completely shattered, as first-place Oakland was losing in Colorado at publication time. If that held up, the A’s lead would be down to 5.5 games. Third-place Seattle did not play, rather their series against the Giants was moved to San Francisco due to hazardous air quality in the Pacific Northwest.
These two Lone Star State enemies meet again Wednesday at 7:10 p.m. CT in a matchup between two struggling hurlers. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-2, 5.79) will make his return from the injured list to start for Houston while the Rangers counter with Kyle Gibson (1-5, 6.14).