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Justin Verlander Returns, But Astros Lose 3-1

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Do you recall Friday when the Astros had arguably their most optimal lineup of the season? Yes, me too. I was even slightly hopeful that Dusty Baker would roll with a similar arrangement for Saturday. Silly me, as I should know better at this point.

As I mentioned in Friday’s recap, I generally don’t stress out too much about the lineup decisions. It is more of an annoyance issue than anything else. But considering how we’re in August and the Astros are still trailing the Rangers in the AL West, any advantage not maximized stands out more than in recent seasons. For example, I don’t think a struggling Mauricio Dubón is a better choice in centerfield than Jake Meyers. The personal center fielder idea wasn’t cute last season and it isn’t this season. In other words, I think my annoyance has transformed into frustration, especially at this point of the season.

In an ideal situation, the Astros ought to maximize the number of at-bats for the following players: Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman, Yainer Díaz, and Chas McCormick. Those six have been the club’s best hitters this season by wRC+. However, Díaz, as long as Martín Maldonado remains, won’t start most games at catcher. He will occasionally hit as the DH when he doesn’t catch, but Saturday’s decision to start Grae Kessinger at first base indicates Baker doesn’t trust Díaz at the position. But the remaining five hitters — Altuve, Alvarez, Tucker, Bregman, and McCormick — should all bat within the top half of a lineup without excuse for most games.

Am I putting too much weight into the lineup configuration on a day when the Astros generated only one run on two hits? Probably. But I am a process-over-results type of person, and these processes don’t look good. I mean, Baker tried to make it seem that Maldonado and Díaz were similar hitters in terms of production not too long ago.

No words...

At least Altuve collected his 200th career home run and it was against the Yankees. Poetic.

In terms of pitching, the game was a bit more eventful. For one, Justin Verlander returned to the mound wearing an Astros uniform, which was definitely not on my 2023 bingo card. But it honestly felt like the right-hander never left when watching him pick up his first strikeout of the game.

Overall, Verlander pitched well enough to keep the Astros in the game, but he wasn’t his past dominant self. Only five whiffs on the day, with his four-seam picking up only one. Of course, we were already aware that Verlander’s swing-and-miss stuff has taken a step back this season. But his velocity was present and even Verlander pitching at, say, 75% is better than most. Seven innings of two-run ball wasn’t a bad reintroduction. The lineup failed more than Verlander or Kendall Graveman did in this one.

Sunday’s game is a vital one for the Astros as they aim for the series split and continue to chase the Rangers in the standings. At the time of this recap, Houston trails Texas by two games, with the latter currently playing against the Marlins. José Urquidy is expected to make his return opposite Carlos Rodón for the finale.