The Astros fell in extra innings to the Braves on Saturday, guaranteeing at least a series loss, but they shouldn’t feel bad about it moving forward.
Yesterday, the Houston Astros played the middle game of their weekend series against the Braves, and despite coming off a loss, the fanbase wasn’t in that bad of a mood. Cristian Javier was taking the mound against Atlanta rookie Spencer Strider, there was excitement surrounding prospect David Hensley’s promotion to MLB, and perhaps most importantly, superstar Yordan Alvarez was discharged from hospital after clearing all his medical tests.
They would still end up losing, though, by a score of 5-4 in 11 innings in one of the more exciting MLB games that has been played all season. The Astros are a juggernaut and plenty of their losses lately have been easily avoidable. They dropped their series opener against the White Sox at the beginning of the week due to some questionable bullpen management by Dusty Baker, as he put in the suddenly reeling Rafael Montero into a tie game on zero days’ rest after a tough outing the day before. The next night, Hector Neris allowed the swing-happy Eloy Jimenez to walk for just the 15th time all year. He would score as the winning run in the 8th inning.
Last night, though, the Astros simply came out on the short end against a great team. Here’s why they shouldn’t be feeling sorry for themselves going into Sunday’s finale as they try to avoid getting swept.
Strider, as he has almost all year, dealt for the Braves. His fastball touched 100 mph on multiple occasions, and he dropped his season ERA to 2.95 after his 9-strikeout effort yesterday. It was reassuring for Houston to see Jeremy Pena hit a home run for the first time in a while; his opposite-field solo shot ended up being the only run the Astros scored off Strider.
Javier had a brilliant outing himself, keeping the Astros in it. He also went 6 innings and allowed a single run off of a homer, striking out 8 and walking 1. His fastball velocity was up, averaging 95 MPH and topping out at 97. 32% of his pitches were either called strikes or whiffs. He gave up 5 hard-hit balls to Strider’s 4. It was a pitcher’s duel all the way, and Javier went toe-to-toe with Strider every step of the way.
Even though it took a while for them to come alive, the offense deserves its credit as well. They came through in both the 10th and 11th inning and once again, the guys who came through were the ones who needed to the most. Jake Meyers smoked a go-ahead single in the 10th, and Yuli Gurriel knocked a double down the right-field line to go into the bottom half of the inning with a 3-1 lead.
This is the one part that, understandably, still won’t sit right with Astros fans about yesterday’s loss. After a clean 9th and just 11 pitches, closer Ryan Pressly was lifted for Neris, who gave up a scorching double to Michael Harris and a well-timed single to Robbie Grossman to allow the Braves to tie it up at 3.
Still, the offense was up to the task in the 11th. Trey Mancini’s groundout allowed the extra-innings runner, Alex Bregman, to move over to 3rd to lead off the inning. Christian Vazquez drew a walk, and then Jeremy Pena scored Bregman with a groundout of his own. The Astros used the extra-innings rule to their advantage without recording a hit in the inning. Ryne Stanek, in the midst of a phenomenal year, was given the ball in the bottom half.
Stanek didn’t strike anybody out in the inning. In fact, the Braves walked it off before he could even get an out. As a pitcher, soft contact is the optimal way to get batters out if the strikeout stuff isn’t there, and in Stanek’s defense, that’s exactly what he got. He pitched around Austin Riley to lead off the inning with first base open, but Matt Olson doubled to tie the game.
The only thing is, this double came on a check swing. It only got to the outfield because the shift was on, which is justified since Olson only hits it to the opposite field 22% of the time. Stanek does not deserve to be blamed in any form for giving up a double on a check swing. He probably shouldn’t for Travis d’Arnaud’s walk-off single either, since d’Arnaud completely beat the ball into the ground (-19 degree launch angle) and it still got through. Per Statcast, Olson’s double had an expected batting average of .110. d’Arnaud’s single clocked in at .130.
The rest of the game is up for interpretation but in the 11th inning, the baseball gods were simply out to get the Houston Astros. The two hits that allowed the Braves to tie and win the game had no business causing any trouble. The Astros were without Yordan Alvarez, and Jose Altuve was dealing with a sore shoulder at some point because it’s keeping him out of the lineup today.
It’s never a good thing to make excuses for losing, especially for good teams, and the Astros shouldn’t. There is an important lesson here, though: sometimes, a loss doesn’t solely fall on the manager or a bad pitching performance or a lifeless lineup. At some point, the Braves deserve a tip of the cap. Only the Mets, Astros, and Dodgers have a better record than them this year. They won an exciting game yesterday, and from Houston’s perspective, no one should bear the brunt of the blame. The Astros are still clearly the best team in the AL and the standings reflect that, so it’ll only boost their confidence if they can move past this one quickly and salvage something from this series this afternoon.