Monday, August 18, 2014

It's Official: We're Better than Last Year!

GAME 119: Twins 4, Astros 2
GAME 120: Astros 10, Twins 4
GAME 121: Twins 3, Astros 1

GAME 122: Red Sox 9, Astros 4
GAME 123: Astros 5, Red Sox 3 (10 innings)
GAME 124: Red Sox 10, Astros 7
GAME 125: Astros 8, Red Sox 1

Well, it's official: The 2014 Astros are better than the 2013 record breaking loser team. With Sunday's trouncing of the 2013 Champion Red Sox, the Astros are 52-73, one game over their win total for all of last season. And it's still only mid-August. There are almost 40 games left to play. So for all those who are grumpy about how bad the Astros are this year, just remember that we're getting better all the time.

That point of view might have been a hard sell over the past week, as the Astros managed to drop some close games, and to lose some leads in big innings for the wrong team. The Astros 3 wins last week came for the most part by hot offense. The losses came for the most part by fails, mid game, by the starters, with weak relief by the bullpen. Take a look at the Red Sox series: On Thursday, the Astros carried a 4-1 lead to the bottom of the 6th inning, with what looked like a nice start for Scott Feldman. Then, Feldman melted down, allowing the Sox to tie it up on a double, 4 singles, and a walk. He left the game with the score tied 4-4 and one out. Then the bullpen (Downs and Folty) allowed all of Feldman's runners, plus one, to score before the inning ended with 12 Boston batters coming to the plate.

Saturday's game was much the same. Houston took an early lead with 6 runs scoring in the first 4 innings, and went into the bottom of the 5th leading 6-3. Peacock's recent games considered, 3 runs in 4 innings would have to be counted as a quality start for our weakest link in the rotation. But in the 5th inning Peacock gave up his second homer of the night to David Ortiz, for 2 more runs. Then Fields allowed a single, pair of walks, and sac fly to give up the lead for good. Chapman came in to pitch long relief, and had two good innings, then gave up 3 runs in the 8th, for a little Red Sox icing on the cake.

The Astros two losses to the Twins both came after nice starts in tight games (relatively nice for Peacock, very nice for Oberholtzer), followed by Fields giving up runs in his relief inning. Unfortunately for Obie, who only gave up 1 run in 7 innings, the Astros didn't score on his watch and he ended up with the loss.

Unfortunately, I missed seeing Friday night's 5-3 win, due to Sabbath observance, but it appears to have been quite crazy. With the Astros behind 3-2 in the 8th, 2 on and 2 outs, the Red Sox misplayed a simple ground ball, throwing late to second base (rather than the easy out at first). Then pinch-runner Petit came around trying to score from second base, dodging Red Sox players right and left and managed to score. You have to just go watch the replay. Words do not suffice to describe such a crazy play. The Sox challenged both plays, of course, and lost on review. That run tied the game, and it stayed tied until Marisnick hit in the winning runs in the tenth inning. The win Friday night was notable for two reasons: It was Houston's 51st win, tying last season's total. And it was the Astros' first win in Fenway Park.  What a game! What a game!

The other 2 of the Astros' 3 wins last week came in big offensive games, scoring 10 and 8 runs against the Twins and Red Sox, respectively. The highlights of these bursts included more of the same wonderful batting by Altuve, and a continuation of Carter's recent power burst. Look at Altuve's game on Sunday: He went 4 for 5 with a grand slam, putting his BA at .339 (7 points over next best Cano) and his hit total at a crazy 173 (13 hits over next best Cabrera). Carter's home run total is up to 29 -- just 2 behind the AL leaders Abreu and Cruz. For everyone who has badmouthed Carter, it's time to give him some credit. He's really coming into his own.

So on to the last 6 weeks of the season. It's all gravy from here on, assuming they don't lose all the rest of the games. Every win is one better than the worst year ever, one step towards being a winning team with dreams of October.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Thank Heavens for the Rangers!

GAME 113: Phillies 2, Astros 1 (15 innings)
GAME 114: Phillies 10, Astros 3
GAME 115: Phillies 6, Astros 5 

GAME 116: Astros 4, Rangers 3
GAME 117: Astros 8, Rangers 3
GAME 118: Rangers 6, Astros 2

It's always a bit of a challenge to find good things to say when your team gets swept. But the Astros' series sweep by the Phillies was not all bad -- if you ignore losing all the games. First of all, two of our starters, Keuchel and McHugh, had very good starts, although it was ultimately in a losing effort. The losses did not occur on their watches, at least. So that's a plus for the future Astros team.

On the other hand, Brad Peacock continued in his effort to convince the Astros that he's not Major League material, with yet another horrid start. He gave up 5 runs in the first inning alone, and ultimately 8 runs in 5. Given the known outcome of this season, the Astros can keep running Peacock out there and let him try to fix his pitching problems in front of the fans. But expect an outcry from the fan base that they want to see another deserving young pitcher get a chance. That would be the fan version of the "F" word - Foltynewicz! A starter who can throw 100 MPH fast balls seems wasted, when he is relegated to an occasional inning of relief pitching. The Astros' Powers That Be want to give him a taste of the big leagues, late this season, before letting him try for a rotation spot next spring. But I'd bet that he gets a chance at a start before the end of this season. 

Meanwhile, thank Heavens for the Rangers, without whom the Astros would not have any dust eaters. Not getting a sweep over the Rangers was the biggest disappointment of this weekend's continuation of the cross-state rivalry. After I missed watching Friday's game and half of Saturday's game, due to Sabbath observance, I was really psyched up to watch Sunday's series conclusion with our best pitcher on the mound. For three innings, I was hoping that it would be more than a sweep -- it would be that no-hitter that I'd been waiting for Keuchel to throw. He only gave up a walk in his first pass through the Rangers' lineup, while the Astros eked out a couple of runs for a 2-0 lead. But then the wheels came off, and it turned out to be one of Keuchel's rare poor (and relatively short) starts -- 5 runs in 6 innings on 6 hits ad 3 walks. Meanwhile, with little additional Astros offense to make up for it, it turned out to be an 8th loss for Keuchel. Bummer. 

However, the Astro did get a series win off the Rangers. Oberholtzer had a shaky start on Friday, giving up 2 runs in the first inning, before settling in and throwing 6 more scoreless innings. But he missed figuring for the decision, as the Astros waited until an 8th inning homer by Robbie Grossman to take the lead. Veras got the win, and Qualls earned the save, despite attempting to blow it, giving up another 9th inning run.

On Saturday night, I tuned in when the Sabbath ended, about halfway through the game, just in time for the Astros to take a decisive lead with a 4 run fifth. Despite the 8 runs, the Astros scored on the littler stuff in this game - no homers, 2 doubles, 10 singles, and 6 walks. Lots of little stuff. Feldman had another quality start, giving up 3 runs in 6 1/3 innings. Folty threw a scoreless ninth inning, mostly on his blazing fastball, including a few pitches that hit the 100 mark. This time, however, he did mix in a few curve balls to show the fans that he's not just a one pitch wonder. 

The Astros are still battling their DL, with the trio of center fielders still out. Altuve gave a scare with a sore neck that kept him out for a couple of games, but he was back in Sunday's game with a pair of hits and a stolen base. Altuve's still leading the league in BA, hits, and stolen bases. 

The Astros record is now 49-69 (.415) - that's about 100 points better than where they ended up last year. That series win over the Rangers helped keep them eating our dust at .393. Over in the NL, there's an equally awful team playing in Colorado. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Jays are Blue

GAME 109: Blue Jays 6, Astros 5
GAME 110: Astros 3, Blue Jays 1
GAME 111: Astros 8, Blue Jays 2
GAME 112: Astros 6, Blue Jays 1

After the fun of winning a series from the A's, the Astros took on another strong playoff contender, the Toronto Blue Jays -- and won again! In fact, like in the A's series, the Astros came pretty close to a sweep.

Let's get that disappointment in game 1 of the series out of the way first. This was not quite the failure of the loss in the A's series; it had been back and forth over the whole game. Starting pitcher Jake Buchanan was called up to fill in for the traded Cosart, and held the Blue Jays to 3 runs over his 5 innings. The Astros gave him just enough run support - 4 runs. Veras gave up a tying homer in the sixth, but the Astros came back to go ahead by one in the bottom of the inning. The Astros were still leading 5-4 in the 8th, when the Blue Jays tied on a pair of singles and sac fly off of Josh Fields. Then Chad Qualls gave up a game winning homer to garner his second consecutive loss. What more could we expect in a game that Altuve doesn't get even a single hit in? Enough said.

Let's move on to better things! The rest of the series was much more fun. Here are a few highlights.

As usual, I missed the Friday night game, and most of the Saturday evening game, due to Sabbath observance. Friday night's game featured a solid start for McHugh -- he gave up only one run in 6 1/3 innings, and the bullpen held on to shut out the Jays for the rest of the game. However, Astros batters didn't get around to scoring a run to take the lead until well after his watch. The game winning runs came in the bottom of the eighth on Petit's first major league homer.  (Alas, it was on a night that his wife had a headache and didn't go to the game!)

I tuned in after the Sabbath just in time for fun and games! After Oberholtzer had pitched 7 innings, nursing a 4-2 lead, the Astros brought in Mike Foltynewicz for his major league debut. FOLTY!!! It was only 3 batters in relief, but it gave fans a chance to see what we have in store. He pitched all fastballs -- ranging from 94 to 99 -- to the heart of the Jays' order.  Cabrera popped out, then the mighty Bautista struck out on four consecutive 99 MPH fast balls, then pinch-hitter Rasmus walked on a full count. Porter then brought in Sipp to pitch to next Jays' batter -- no one throws to left-handed batters better than Sipp! But uh-oh -- Sipp gave up a LONNNNG fly ball that was clearly headed over the wall to tie the game. The Robbie Grossman took a leap into the air and grabbed the ball for the third out.  

In the bottom of the inning, the Astros doubled down. Carter led off with a single, and Castro hit a homer to make it 6-2.  After Hoes singled,  Singleton hit a sharp bounce-off-the-wall fly ball and started running. Hoes scored, but Singleton was called out sliding into home plate. But hooray for the new review process!!! The out call was overturned on review and Singleton was awarded the inside the park home run! For a big guy, he can leg it! The final score was 8-2, after Clemens pitched a hitless ninth. What a great game for the Astros offense! Although Altuve "only" got 2 hits, Carter, Castro, and Singleton were each 3 for 4 -- each with a homer.

With at least a tie guaranteed for the series, it was Feldman's turn to pitch. He's pitched well lately, but the bullpen hasn't helped him get a win for his efforts.  Sunday afternoon he didn't take any chances with the bullpen: He pitched a complete game, giving up only one run in the second inning before dominating the Blue Jays for the rest of the game. The Astros scored their six runs, uncharacteristically, without a homer - just lots of singles, doubles, walks, and sacs. But they managed to score their runs early in the game, giving Feldman plenty of support for the win.

In other good news, Springer is going to Quad Cities for a rehab stint. Hopefully our star rookie will be back soon! Meanwhile, Santana is getting a second chance, after his dreadful series of Ks in his debut earlier this season. He's been called up to replace Guzman, who's out on DL.

The Astros have a night off -- for Tishe B'av? -- before taking on the Phillies Tuesday night.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mopping Up (But Not Sweeping) the A's

GAME 106: Astros 7, Athletics 3
GAME 107: Athletics 7, Astros 4
GAME 108: Astros 8, Athletics 1

Before I get into how the cellar-headed Astros came within one out of sweeping the Major League best Athletics, let's stop for a moment and look at what might be a much bigger deal, longer term -- the last minute trade between the Astros and the Marlins. I'm sure that many fans are sad to see Jarred Cosart leave the team, along with the very impressive newbie, Kike Hernandez, and one of our minor league prospects. But you can't get the goods without giving up something, and Houston did get some interesting goods in the trade, as well as a compensatory draft pick. The three players coming to the Astros are Marlins outfielder Jake Marisnick, and two minor league players, Francis Martes (RHP) and Colin Moran (3B). Marisnick is a young player who spent most of the season in Triple A; he will immediately fill in at center field for Fowler, who is still on the DL. Moran, who was the 6th overall pick in the 2013 draft, was one of the players the Astros considered for their first pick. He's been hitting well in the minors and will go to Corpus Christi. He may be ready to compete with MattyD for the Astro's third base spot next spring. Martes is just 18, and has a high 90's fastball in rookie ball - he's described as a "lottery ticket" thrown into the deal. Bleacher Report gave the Astros an A- on the deal. Only time will tell... 

In my last blog post, I didn't show much enthusiasms for the Astros chances against the league leading Oakland A's, but this team never ceases to surprise and amaze. Surprised that they could nearly sweep, let alone win the series, against such a formidable team. Amazed that they managed to let the one game they lost get away, with Qualls on the mound and a 3-run lead in the ninth. Let's get the bad news over with first. In Tuesday night's game, the Astros went into the ninth inning leading 4-1. Feldman had a really nice start, going 7 innings and giving up 1 run on 5 hits. Fields kept up his good recent pitching with a 1-2-3 eighth. Then came the ninth inning. Qualls has been pitching very well as our closer, and struck out the first batter he faced. So it came as a big bad shock when he gave up a single, double, RBI single, ground out, wild pitch, walk and then another single, allowing the A's to tie it up 4-4. Finally, Qualls got yanked (one batter too late in my opinion - should have taken him out after the walk) and Sipp came in. Sipp's been Mr Reliable at getting outs, but he gave up the go-ahead run on a single. Veras took the mound next and gave up 2 more runs before ending the inning. But that was all gravy -- the A's 6 runs were 2 more than they needed to win the game. The Astros went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the ninth.

On to happier outcomes... Monday night's 7-3 win featured 4 home runs, accounting for all of the Astros' runs. Carter hit a three-run homer in the 3rd, his 21st of the season. Then Castro, Krauss, and Dominguez all hit long balls in the 6th inning, scoring the other 4 runs of the game. Oberholtzer pitched into the 7th for the win, giving up 3 runs on 8 hits.

After Tuesday night's ninth-inning letdown, the Astros came back with a vengeance Wednesday afternoon. They scored 6 runs in the first inning, 5 of them coming with "just" 2 outs. (Surprisingly, Altuve didn't figure in any of the runs - he led off with a flyable out, and closed the inning with a K.) But one homer (Grossman), one walk, and five singles added up to plenty of run support to the Astros' pitcher who barely needed any: Dallas Keuchel. I still haven't given up on my "goal" to see Keuchel throw a no-no this season. This game was his fourth complete game win of the season. He gave up only one run on a solo homer, with 3 other singles sprinkled in. After the previous day's sorry conclusion, just as well not to trust his nice lead to the bullpen! Nice start (and middle and end!) for Keuchel.

Last minute news: Folty's coming! More to say about that in the next blog!

The Astros are still duking it out with the Rangers to be the worst team in the Major Leagues. But, based on this series, they're not afraid of the big guys and they're still having some fun. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

Something Fishy in Houston

GAME 103: Marlins 2, Astros 0
GAME 104: Marlins 7, Astros 3
GAME 105: Marlins 4, Astros 2

The Astros' homecoming against Florida was not quite welcoming -- they were swept in the three game weekend series. I may have to dig a bit to find my something-to-like about a sweep at home, but I'll try.

The two most notable Astros players in the series were game 1 starter Dallas Keuchel and our irrepressible infielder Jose Altuve. Keuchel had a terrific game -- he threw 7 innings, giving up 2 runs (0 ER) scored due to a fielding error. Sadly, Houston batters couldn't manage to eke out a couple of runs in support, so he ended up getting tagged with the loss. Still, it's great that he resumed the form that made him such a standout pitcher earlier this season. Unfortunately, both Cosart and McHugh were hit up for early-inning runs in their starts, and did not have such positive game stats or much offensive support -- a good recipe for a big fat "L."

On the offensive side, Altuve just kept doing what he does best -- hitting. Over the three games he went 7 for 13, including a leadoff homer in game 3. This barrage of hits has Altuve leading the Major Leagues in batting average (.344) and hits (148), while leading the AL in stolen bases (42) and second in the AL for doubles (30). How cool is this?

The Astros are still missing some of their key position players, due to injury. Most notably, our center field depth is significantly depleted, with Fowler, Springer, and Presley all on the DL. Springer and Presley might be back this week, but Fowler's not expected on the field until sometime in August. In the meantime, rookie Hernandez is getting a lot of playing time. He's acquitting himself well at the plate, and is learning to play  MMP's dreadful centerfield the hard way -- by experience. Unfortunately for him, that included Friday night's failed catch that resulted in the Marlins' only 2 (unearned) runs. Says a lot for Dallas Keuchel that he went up to Hernandez after the game -- not to blame him, but to check on how he was doing after that blunder cost the game.

Unfortunately for the Astros' W-L record, the next series is against the best team in the league -- a hometown rematch with Oakland. It's going to be a long week. Hell, it's a long season!

The Astros record is now 42-63 (.400). There's one team in either league that's worse -- the Rangers (.390). And they are pretty damn close. The Astros are due to get the second pick in next year's draft, because of not signing Aiken. If they come in last place again this year, do they get the first TWO picks?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Grandparent Camp

GAME 97: White Sox 3, Astros 2
GAME 98: White Sox 4, Astros 3
GAME 99: Astros 11, White Sox 7

GAME 100: Astros 3, Athletics 2
GAME 101: Athletics 9, Astros 7
GAME 102: Athletics 13, Astros 1

I barely had time to catch any baseball games this past week, as my husband and I were in New Jersey running Grandparent Camp -- spending long summer days doing activities of interest to 3-year old boys while their parents were busy with work and school.

We had a great time taking short hikes, going to the zoo, making picnics, riding trains, watching construction sites, reading books, going out for ice cream, and spraying shaving cream at each other. (Not to mention chasing crazed wet escapees from the shower.)

It's not that we were too busy babysitting to watch ball games. The kids go to bed by about 7. The grandparents stay up later, but after a day of playing with active twin boys, we were pretty zonked too! I did manage to catch an inning here and there, but this wasn't a week for baseball-watching immersion. (Especially those super late night games out on the West Coast!)

But I did manage to catch an inning here and there. Unfortunately, the day game on the day after I returned home from NY -- which I was looking forward to watching without interruption -- was arguably the worst game that the Astros have played all season. Wrong side of a 13-1 blowout against the division leading Athletics. Another poor start for Feldman (6 ER in less than 6 innings). At least it wasn't a shutout; Carter hit a solo homer for the Astros' single run.  And at least Altuve got his 2 hits.

On the good news side of the Astros' series losses to the White Sox and Athletics... yesterday's game was the only really lopsided loss. The two losses in Chicago were close games, and then the Astros scored double-digit runs in the game they won. They then won a close game for the Oakland opener. They had a big 5-run inning in the middle game against the Athletics, although their total of 7 runs was not enough to catch up. When you go into the 8th inning down 9-2, it's a pretty big hole to dig your way out of. That mess belonged to Brad Peacock, who gave up 7 runs in his 3 2/3 innings. (At least he got out of the first inning, unlike his previous start.) And then yesterday's crash and burn... Bottom line: We won one game in each series, right on schedule.

In other Astros news, mostly not good... Springer has joined Fowler on the DL, cutting into his opportunities to smack a few more homers in his rookie year. Maybe when he comes back he will be able to shake loose of his propensity for strikeouts. That 4 K game that we saw in Baltimore on Mothers' Day was, alas, part of an ongoing pattern -- his strikeout rate is around 40%! Fowler's traveling with the team, but isn't working out yet. Don't look for him in the lineup any time soon. With Fowler, Springer, and Presley all on the DL, there's a bit of a hole in center field. It's been nicely filled with an unexpectedly happy newbie story -- Kike (I wish he'd spell his nickname differently!) Hernandez is doing just fine at the plate and in the field.

More bad news: The Astros not only failed to sign Brady Aiken, their #1 draft pick; they managed to piss off the family, the agent, and the players' union. As far as I can tell, they did not actually do anything illegal by lowering their offer dollars in response to an issue discovered in the physical exam. But they gave the team a bit of a black eye. Worse, when the Aiken deal fell through, a couple of other signings fell through as well, for financial reasons. It's not 2007, but it's not too good either.

Our twin grandsons (and their parents) are coming to visit us in Maryland for a few days next month, and I'm already thinking about our plans. Definitely another shaving cream battle out in the back yard. And maybe I'll go buy one of those fat bat and ball sets to get them started on their baseball training!

The Astros record is now 42-60 (.412). Not too much dust trailing that record; most of the dust is right in our face! There's one AL team that's worse -- the Rangers (.392). And over in the NL there are 2 bigger losers -- the Cubs (.410) and the Rockies (.406).

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Baseball and Poker Highlights...

GAME 94: Red Sox 8, Astros 3
GAME 95: Astros 3, Red Sox 2
GAME 96: Red Sox 11, Astros 0

After the fun of the sweep in Dallas, the Astros came back home to Houston just in time to go into a bit of a slump against last years' World Series champs, the Red Sox. Let's just say that the good news is that the Astros got their one win to keep them ahead of last year's record. In today's close of the first "half" of the season, the Astros looked just like the team of kids that they actually are. The starting pitcher lasted 1/3 of an inning. The defense committed 3 errors. The batters only managed three hits, all singles, while striking out 12 times. Everyone in the starting line up struck out at least once except (ironically, last year's strikeout king) Carter. All around miserable game. But while some fans are booing and calling for Porter's ouster, I say, just take it in stride. This is who we are this season - sometimes high energy winners, sometimes can't-do-anything-right losers. Growing pains...

So let's talk about a couple of pretty cool things instead of series losses. First of all, one can't go too far wrong talking about Altuve, who's going to the All Star game with 130 hits and 41 stolen bases. That, sports fans, is a Major League record for the hits/SB combination going into the All Star Break. Altuve is also carrying .335 batting average (just barely edged out of leading the league by Adrian Beltre after today's 0 for 4 game), which positions him well for one of the four season goals I set back in May - winning the AL Batting Title. Hey, this could really happen! I just hope that Altuve's lack of stature  (and I don't mean that physically) with baseball fans outside of Houston doesn't result in his getting slighted in the All Star Game. Who doesn't remember Hunter Pence in 2009?

In other cool sports news, my to-be son-in-law, Aaron Kaiser (Tweeting as ManchildDC) is playing in Day 6 of the World Series of Poker Hold'em Main Event. Out of 6683 players who entered the tournament last week, as of this writing Aaron is still in the remaining 4 dozen. I'm not personally a big fan of poker or of gambling in general, but I'm a huge fan of Aaron! Very exciting for him!!! Will update this post later...

UPDATE: Aaron came in 36th place!!!