The Houston Astros swept a key series on the road in Seattle this weekend to start the second half, stopping the Mariners’ momentum in its tracks.
It would have been forgivable to hear that the Houston Astros weren’t celebrating yet going into the All-Star break. Sure, they were 59-32, but they dropped their final series before the break in disappointing fashion to the Oakland A’s at home. As well, Yordan Alvarez‘s hand injury was keeping the fans from getting too carried away and it still is, as he did not start in the series finale this weekend.
Nevertheless, the team promptly responded to that small dose of adversity by sweeping a doubleheader against the Yankees to start the second half and then marching up to Seattle and sweeping a crucial three-game set. They did so amidst hostile sold-out crowds and a Mariners team that entered the weekend having won their last 14 games.
For most of the year, the Astros have had a lead of over 10 games in the AL West standings, and until the Mariners’ winning streak began, it looked as though winning the division would be the cakewalk to rule over all cakewalks. Going to face a team that is 10 games behind in the standings for 3 games in the back half of July doesn’t seem that intense, but for the Astros, 2022 has been so successful that this was arguably the most pivotal series they’ve had so far. They certainly didn’t disappoint, either.
The Astros did what they had to do offensively this weekend, putting up 16 runs across the 3 games (5.3 per game). They had a collective batting average of .279 and hit 5 home runs, crushing the ball in games 1 and 3 while winning more of a pitcher’s duel in game 2. Martin Maldonado continued his scorching July (.889 OPS this month) with 4 RBI, including a home run in game 1 and a 2-run bloop single to provide some insurance in the finale. Jose Altuve hit a home run to lead off both the first and the last game of the series, and in game 3, Jeremy Pena followed that up with a home run of his own, making it back-to-back home runs to start the game off reigning Cy Young winner Robbie Ray.
The Astros won game 2 thanks in part to a couple of RBI doubles from Kyle Tucker and Yuli Gurriel respectively in the 4th inning. In game 3, Mauricio Dubon pitched in with an RBI ground-rule double, which helped to set the table for the first of Maldonado’s RBIs that game and another run-scoring hit from Altuve. That sequence was part of why Robbie Ray only lasted into the third inning of Sunday’s start; the Astros lit him up for 10 hits and 6 runs to secure the sweep.
The team is being very cautious with Yordan Alvarez’s hand injury, as he only started in games 1 and 2, which may be cause for future concern given how he is healing from it. Either way, he looked just fine in his abbreviated playing time, going 2-5 with 2 walks, including a lefty-lefty home run off Marco Gonzales in game 1. The Astros head right back to Oakland on Monday, and if he’s out of the lineup for a second straight day, the coaching staff will no doubt be fielding questions as to whether he really made a full recovery this past week.
Pitching and Defense
Once again, Houston outpitched their opponent this series, allowing 8 runs (2.7 per game). The starters worked to a 2.29 ERA, while the relievers were slightly shakier at a 3.68. Jose Urquidy outdueled fellow pitch-to-contact counterpart Marco Gonzales in the series opener on Friday, going 6 innings and allowing a single run on 4 hits, 3 strikeouts, and 2 walks. The only dent the Mariners could make on the scoreboard against him was a Ty France home run to lead off the 6th inning. It’s encouraging to see Urquidy get better and better after a rough start to the season; he left it all out on the mound once again, throwing 105 pitches in this outing.
Pitching was the story all around in game 2, as Justin Verlander, one of the most accomplished pitchers of this generation, went up against Logan Gilbert, one of the brightest future stars in baseball. Verlander was a beast on the mound, taking advantage of all the rest he has been granted lately on account of Houston’s deep rotation, going 7 innings and allowing 1 run on 9 strikeouts. He turned back the clock in an epic 7th inning, striking out Cal Raleigh and Sam Haggerty to get out of a tough jam unscathed, topping it all off with a goosebumps-inducing reaction on his way back to the dugout. He touched 99 mph multiple times in that inning, something the 39-year-old hasn’t done in several seasons.
Framber Valdez has been a true ace this season, and he extended his quality starts streak to 16 on Sunday. He almost lost that streak in the 7th inning, which was quite unfortunate considering how seamless the first 6 had gone. However, he couldn’t survive the 7th after giving up a 2-run triple and an RBI double to Sam Haggerty and J.P. Crawford respectively. Despite allowing 8 hits, Valdez still notched 8 strikeouts in a fine effort that was enough to secure a winning decision and help clinch the sweep.
The bullpen was good in the first two games but nearly made it too close for comfort in the series finale. Seth Martinez pitched a scoreless 7th to follow Urquidy’s efforts in the opener, but Phil Maton had another tough inning, only managing 1 out and leaving the bases loaded. Ryne Stanek walked one of those runs home, but got the next 2 outs to keep his personal scoreless streak alive, despite allowing another inherited run to score. From there, Hector Neris pitched a scoreless 9th to get the save.
With Verlander having made the relievers’ jobs easy in game 2, Parker Mushinski pitched a scoreless 8th, filling in on the active roster for Ryan Pressly. Bryan Abreu locked it down, recording the save in the 9th while adding on a strikeout. Game 3 was tricky, because while Martinez came in to strand the runner that would have broken Valdez’s aforementioned quality starts streak, he gave up a 2-run home run to former Astro Abraham Toro in the bottom of the 8th to make it an 8-5 game. However, Toro’s trade counterpart in Rafael Montero killed the rally and lowered his season ERA to 1.82, and Pressly came back off the paternity list to show off his dad energy and record his 20th save with a perfect 9th. Pressly has now retired 30 batters in a row, an all-time Astros record.
On the defensive front, the Astros were fundamentally sound this weekend, not recording an error all series. The most pivotal defensive play occurred in the 8th inning of game 1. With the bases loaded, just 1 out, and Ryne Stanek already having walked in a run, Jeremy Pena made a spectacular leaping grab on a liner by Kyle Lewis. Stanek, flat-out, would not have gotten out of that jam with that little damage if it weren’t for Pena, and who knows if the Mariners’ rally would have been able to tie the game beyond that. It’s quite impressive that this play was arguably the closest the Mariners got to having any sort of advantage over the Astros all weekend.
In addition, Jake Meyers made a beautiful diving catch in the first inning of Game 2 to take extra bases away from Ty France, and arguably saved a run on the play. Not too long after, he got drilled with a fastball on the elbow of his throwing arm and was removed from the game, but the injury isn’t serious and he was going to sit on Sunday regardless.
The Astros have now won 5 in a row, sit at 64-32, and have pushed their AL West lead back up to 13 games. They proved that they were not intimidated by the Mariners because of their winning streak, or out of practice in intense games like these. Moreover, that 64-32 record is tied for the best 96-game start in franchise history. The team will take the huge amount of positive momentum they have into Oakland for a 3-game set from Monday to Wednesday of this week. The Astros faced them twice in the week leading up to the all-star break, going 3-3 in those contests, and they’ll see them once more in the first half of August.
No probable starters have been listed for Houston in the 2nd and 3rd games of the upcoming series, but Jake Odorizzi has been confirmed as the starter for Monday. Odorizzi went 7 innings in his last appearance at Oakland Coliseum a couple of weeks ago. Meanwhile, Adam Oller, Frankie Montas, and Cole Irvin have been listed as the probables for the A’s. Beyond that, the Astros will face Seattle again next weekend, this time for 4 games at Minute Maid Park in their last full series before the trade deadline. They proved a lot about themselves this weekend, but more tests against divisional rivals lie ahead.