The Houston Astros got a much-needed victory in their rubber match against the Texas Rangers at home on Thursday afternoon.
Expectations are still sky-high in Houston, but it’s no secret that the Astros hadn’t been playing their best baseball going into this week. The trade deadline distracted from a disappointing series loss against the Red Sox, who are slipping further away from contention by the day. As well, an initially promising 4-game set in Cleveland turned sour when the offense mustered just a single run over the final 2 games and were forced to settle for a split.
Their most recent series against the Texas Rangers didn’t come without turmoil either. Following a victory in the series opener, fans erupted in frustration when it was revealed that manager Dusty Baker was still filling out the lineup card despite being away from the team in isolation due to a positive COVID test. It reached a breaking point before the middle game when deadline acquisitions Trey Mancini and Christian Vazquez both sat, the former for the second consecutive game.
However, Baker’s return to the field in good health, as well as a victory in the rubber match, have restored the good vibes in Houston – at least, for now. In this series against the Rangers, the Astros won 7-5, lost 8-4 in 10 innings, and won 7-3 in that order. Here’s how they did it.
The Astros hit the ball well this series, scoring an average of 6 runs per game across the 3 contests. They recorded a pedestrian .250 average as a team, but they made up for it with their patience and power, recording 11 walks and hitting 5 home runs in the series. In the back half of the previous series against the Guardians, they showed an agonizing inability to hit with runners in scoring position and that resurfaced in game 2 of this series, as they went 1 for 10 with RISP and left 11 men on in the extra-innings loss. However, they went 2 for 6 and 2 for 4 respectively with RISP in the other 2 contests.
A theme for the Astros this series, especially in the finale, was slump-breaking. Kyle Tucker was in the midst of a brutal stretch coming out of the all-star break but he hit his 20th homer of the season in the middle game. Yuli Gurriel went 3 for 4 with a double in the rubber match, a game that also saw Jeremy Pena and Jake Meyers record some much-needed hits.
In one of the more electrifying moments of the season so far, the white-hot Aledmys Diaz erased the Rangers’ 4-0 lead in game 1 with one swing, tying it up with a grand slam against ace Martin Perez. That, along with a solo shot from Jose Altuve the next inning, propelled Houston to a 7-5 win, which is harder to accomplish against Martin Perez than most people; Perez threw a complete-game shutout in Houston in late May. Diaz is now slashing .312/.354/.607 in the second half.
Yordan Alvarez got a routine off day on Thursday, due in part to a 5-for-38 slump, but he still clobbered a 115-mph home run down the right field line in the 7th inning of Wednesday night’s game. Alex Bregman also homered, sending a 2-run shot to the train tracks on Thursday afternoon. Deadline acquisition Trey Mancini went 0 for 4 with a strikeout in the lone game that he started this series, leading Astros fans to further criticize the way he has been used by manager Dusty Baker so far.
This week, the Astros did not prevent runs as well as they normally do. They allowed 16 runs, or an average of 5.3 per game, and most of that has to do with some uncharacteristic struggles of the bullpen.
They pitched just fine in game 1, however. The Astros got 5 innings out of Jose Urquidy, but he allowed 5 runs and 3 homers. Justin Verlander turned in yet another good outing in game 2, giving up 3 runs in 6 innings while striking out 7 and walking just 1. The best outing of the series easily came from Framber Valdez, though: he extended his absurd streak of quality starts to 19 with 7 shutout innings in the finale, and also secured the AL lead in innings pitched in the process.
After Urquidy’s subpar start on Tuesday, the bullpen turned in a 4-inning shutout. Will Smith, Rafael Montero, Hector Neris, and Ryan Pressly vetoed any chance of a late Texas rally by striking out 6 batters and allowing just 2 baserunners as a group. Neris and Pressly turned in a scoreless inning each on Wednesday as well, which was preceded by another clean inning from Ryne Stanek. That’s when the wheels fell off, though.
The Astros brought in Phil Maton to pitch the 10th inning and he simply couldn’t get it done. On top of the ghost runner to start the inning, he allowed an additional 4 earned runs and only managed to record 1 out. Maton has struggled to find consistency all year, and that outing not only helped the Rangers secure a win, but it bumped his season ERA up to 4.00.
Even though it had no effect on the game’s result, the bullpen wasn’t great on Thursday either. Seth Martinez got knocked around despite striking out the side in the 8th inning following Valdez’s dazzling performance, allowing 2 runs to score on 3 hits and a walk. Rafael Montero came in to pitch the ninth, but he gave up an ultra-rare home run to Marcus Semien. Across the 3 games, the Astros’ bullpen recorded an ERA of 6.30 while the rotation posted a mark of 4.00.
Looking at their performance the past couple of weeks, winning this series on Thursday afternoon was a lot more important for the Astros than it initially would seem. They hadn’t won a series since a week before the trade deadline against Seattle, and even though the series against Cleveland was technically a split, it felt more like a loss since they had no momentum whatsoever going into this week. Losing this series against Texas would have dropped Houston to 4-6 in their past 10 games.
That recent stretch would’ve been especially magnified if they lost another series going into this weekend because they’re hosting the Oakland Athletics, who gave them fits by sweeping them right out of town in late July despite being in last place. The last time these two met in Houston, Oakland won that series too.
A storyline to watch this weekend will be the return of starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr., who will make his season debut on Saturday. Luis Garcia will start the series opener on Friday, and Cristian Javier will take the hill in the finale. The A’s have proved time and again that they are not scared whatsoever to face a team as good as the Astros, but this is a series that Houston should handle with ease. After all, they’ve caught up to the slumping Yankees and now own the best record in the AL at 72-41.