GAME 113 - August 11: Braves 8, Astros 2
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
GAME 114 - August 13: Astros 4, Pirates 1
GAME 115 - August 14: Astros 3, Pirates 2
GAME 116 - August 15: Astros 8, Pirates 2
Despite the mixed results in the win-loss column, this week has featured two main themes: Very sharp pitching from the Astros starting rotation and late inning offense to deny those starters much run support.
Even the two losses to the Braves last week began with quality starts, which were spoiled by glitches in the bullpen. On Tuesday Happ redeemed his previous miserable start with 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball, giving up only 2 hits and striking out 6. He wasn't on target to win the game anyway, since the Astros didn't take their precarious 2-1 lead until the bottom of the eighth. But Lindstrom blew his second consecutive save situation with a pair of homers in the ninth inning. Lindstrom beat himself up about it after the game, while Mills stuck by him as Houston's closer ("He's the guy"). But just in case, Lindstrom's been getting tests on his back done, and hasn't pitched since. (Nothing's shown up on the MRI, checking out the back spasms that have been bothering him, and he's supposedly available to pitch.)
Wednesday afternoon 8-2 score doesn't look much like a close game until you check out the boxes -- Wandy had pitched another good start, giving up 2 runs (1 earned) and striking out 9 in his 7 innings. But it was a 6-run tenth inning that put the game out of reach for the Astros. This time it was Lyons who was the goat, with a little bit of help from Fulchino. After pitching a perfect ninth, he gave up two runs and loaded the bases before Mills brought in Fulchino save the day. BAM! SLAM! Four more runs (three charged to Lyons) made it a runaway. The Astros went down appropriately meekly in the bottom of the inning.
The Sabbath games against the Pirates got off to similar starts, but with more favorable outcomes. It made for a very nice late night of watching baseball after the Sabbath ended! Both games continued the recent pattern of good starting pitching and late Astros offense. However, the pairing of Lopez and Lyon to finish off the games put the Astros ahead. In Friday night's game, Brett Myers did it again -- another 7 inning start, holding the Pirates to only 1 run, while the Astros failed to score even once on his watch. They finally came through in the bottom of the eighth, with a big 3-run boom from El Caballo and a trio of singles to plate Houston's fourth run. Lyon gave a scare with a leadoff walk and a single to start the ninth, but then got a strikeout and double play to end the threat.
Given the Astros recent propensity for late-inning offense, I should have anticipated some fun Saturday night, when I turned on the computer after the Sabbath. Coming in on the bottom of the seventh, with 2 outs, and the Astros down 2-1, I was just in time to see the come-from-behind action. What I'd missed (and watched later Saturday night on the archived game) was the starting pitching drama, one of the best of the year. It didn't look good for Bud Norris in the first couple of innings. The first three batters reached on a triple, homer, and thowing error respectively, putting the Pirates ahead 2-0 before the first out was recorded. Then Norris struck out the next three batters, righting the ship. The pitching struggles weren't over for Bud Lite though -- in the second inning he loaded the bases on two singles and an intentional walk. But he got out of that jam without any runs scoring, and then he shut down the Pirates for the next 5 innings. When the dust cleared, Norris had an Astros' season best 14 strikeouts. After the two runs in the first, he'd done all that he could do get that win, including hitting a single and double of his own.
Happily, the Astros came though for Bud in the bottom of the seventh: Quintero led off with a single. Bourgeois, pinch running for Q, got to second on Norris' sac bunt. Sanchez's single scored Bourgeois to tie the game. Then Pence doubled to score Sanchez and put the Astros ahead. It was Pence's third extra-base hit of the game - he also hit a solo homer to kick off the fourth and another double. As in Friday night's game, Lopez and Lyon threw successful eighth and ninth innings, respectively, to give the Astros the win.
Today's finale was more of the same -- a real nice start for J. A. Happ, with the offense coming through just in time to give him a chance for the win. Happ threw 6 innings, giving up 2 runs on 3 hits and 4 walks, with 5 strikeouts. HAPPily for him, Mills allowed him to stay in the game despite a pair of one-out walks in the sixth. He got out of the mess with a wild and crazy double play: Kepp fielded the ball, threw to Sanchez to get the runner coming into second. Sanchez threw to Wallace at first too late to get the batter out. But Pedro Alvarez unwisely tried to make it home from second, and Wallace shot the ball over to Castro to tag him out to end the inning. That was a lucky break for Happ, since it left him as the pitcher of record when the Astros put 4 runs on the board in the bottom of the inning.
With the Astros ahead 5-2 going into the seventh inning, Mills finally gave Mark Melancon (our Berkman trade result) his Astros debut. Although Melancon had said that he was getting "anxious," as game by game went by without a chance to pitch, he sure didn't look like it on the mound. It took him a grand total of 8 pitches (7 strikes) to take down the side on a pair of called strikeouts and a groundout. Byrdak and Fulchino finished up the game. Fulchino came in to pitch in the ninth with Byrdak's two runners on and no outs. He had much better luck than his last appearance on Wednesday, when he gave up a grand slam. He put down the next 3 Pirates to seal the deal. The Astros swept the Pirates at Minute Maid Park -- not only this series, but the whole season series, all 9 games. They should boycott orange juice in Pittsburgh.
I really focused this blog posting on starting pitching, since it's been so effective this past week. Although the Astros have had pretty modest scores over 4 of the past 5 games since I last posted, there has been some really nice hitting too. First place goes to Chris Johnson, who's looking like a Rookie of the Year contender with his .360 batting average and .935 OPS.. He got another 3 hits today, including a rare Astros home run. It's kind of ironic that we went out and got Pedro Feliz for third base this year, not knowing what a huge season CJ would have -- at least so far!
Pence has been a monster recently. Another 3 hits today, two of them doubles -- that's 4 doubles in the past 2 games. His batting average is now up to a season-high .285. Even Carlos Lee has picked up the pace lately. (Dare we hope that his grotesque season start was an aberration, and he'll be of some value to the team over the rest of his outlandishly expensive contract?) And of course it's fun to watch the kids on the team: Wallace, Sanchez, Castro, Norris.
In other baseball news: Carlos Lee gave a new twist to the meaning of a powerful backswing in today's game, whomping the poor plate ump on the head with his bat. The umpire, Alan Porter, ended up with 5 stitches, but apparently not a cracked skull... Poor Chipper Jones made a terrific play against the Astros on Tuesday, robbing Hunter Pence of a hit. But it wasn't worth it -- he tore the ACL in his left knee and will be out on rehab for the rest of the season. Bummer for a contender... Lance Berkman has picked up the pace a bit wearing his new pinstripes. He's batted .333 with a 1.044 OPS in the past week. But in today's game, he stepped on the Royal's pitcher's foot on first base while trying to beat out a double play, and jammed his right ankle. He's day to day... The Wiz was throwing a lot of changeups in LA this week when he pitched seven shutout innings against his old battery mate Brad Ausmus and the Dodgers.