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“What Happened Last Night?” How the Houston Astros Squandered a Five-Run Lead

Oct 11, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) reacts as he walks off the field against the Seattle Mariners at the end of third inning in game one of the ALDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 11, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) reacts as he walks off the field against the Seattle Mariners at the end of third inning in game one of the ALDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports /
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Before cups of coffee could be poured and showers taken, the city of Houston awakened this morning, scratching their eyes, asking themselves, “what happened last night?”

Game 1 of the World Series may have began with a closed roof, but the Astros’ faithful threatened to blow the roof open after Kyle Tucker’s second home run in three innings gave the Astros a 5-0 lead over the Philadelphia Phillies. A five-run lead was seemingly insurmountable with the way the Astros’ pitching staff has mowed through the opposition this October.

Aaron Nola didn’t have an answer for the Astros lineup. After entering Game 1 with an impossible to believe 0-6 record and 5.68 ERA in the Fall Classic, Astros’ ace Justin Verlander’s first time through the order showed a pitcher motivated to vanquish his World Series demons once and for all. The result was all but decided.

Then a resilient Phillies squad took what was once an insurmountable lead and made it evaporate in the blink of an eye.  The Phillies pushed three runs across the plate in the 4th on four base hits before JT Realmuto’s two-run double  in the top of the 5th deadlocked the game at five.

Only then was there movement in the Astros’ bullpen. Houston’s momentum had been halted. The Phillies train was rolling.

Verlander, once again, was unable to answer the bell. One of the greatest pitchers of his generation, a record setter throughout his career, a multiple-time Cy Young Winner, set another record last night. His 6.07 career World Series ERA is now the worst in MLB history.

JV has a resume most pitchers would kill for: two Cy Young awards (a third coming at the end of this season), three no-hitters, 244 wins and 3,198 strikeouts. Regardless of how impressive a regular-season pedigree he possesses–one Cy Young or 10, zero career no-hitters or 15, a $1,000 contract or $25 million–Verlander has yet to show up in the World Series.

Much ado was made pre-game about Verlander becoming only the second pitcher ever to start a World Series game in three different decades. Verlander no doubt deserves credit for a remarkable amount of longevity and the work he has done in both Divisional Series and Championship series to help lead his team to five World Series. If he receives his due credit for his feats of longevity, he should receive due accountability for shrinking in each World Series start he’s made.

Was more needed out of Verlander? Certainly. A five-run lead should be more than enough for the Cy Young winner. When things went to the way side, should he have been given a quicker hook? Unquestionably. A competitor of his stature isn’t just going to set the ball down and walk off the mound. Brandon Marsh’s leadoff double should have been the last batter he faced. Instead, he was allowed to yield the tying runs before being pulled.

With both starters removed, the bullpens held the opposition scoreless for four innings. A solo blast from Realmuto in the 10th off of Luis Garcia gave the Phillies a 6-5 lead, a mark that they would not surrender.

Home-field advantage has been flipped. The Phillies have regained the momentum they brought into the series. The Astros are left with questions to answer yet again with Game 2 less than eight hours away.

“Where was Ryne Stanek?”

The Astros’ single-season ERA franchise record holder (a microscopic 1.15) was once again passed over in the bullpen, with Dusty Baker giving the ball to Luis Garcia to begin the 10th, citing their “matchup sheet.”

Was Garcia heroic in Game 3 of the ALDS? Undoubtedly. Does that justify giving him the ball against the heart of the order while the Astros best reliever and most consistent leverage arm over the course of 162 regular-season games gets splinters in his backside? Absolutely not.

The ball went to Garcia in Game 3 only after the Astros had expended their leverage arms. Stanek had already been used. That Stanek got the ball after the damage had been done in order to keep the margin at one makes the move even more indefensible.

“What does David Hensley have to do to earn an AB?”

Trey Mancini went 0-4 last night and is now 0-16 on the postseason. That he was lifted for a pinch hitter with two runners on in the bottom of the 10th and the game in the balance is not in question. That Aledmys Diaz was the answer absolutely is in question.

Dating back to the 2021 postseason, Diaz is 2-21. After working the count to 3-0, he flailed at a breaking ball below the zone with a green light, one that either he gave himself or the dugout gave, for reasons still unbeknownst. A rollover to third one pitch later and the Astros’ first loss of the postseason was in the book. Astros’ designated hitters are now a combined 2-31 this postseason.

All David Hensley has done in 2022 is rake. He carried a .298/.420/.478 slash line in 104 games at AAA Sugar Land, before posting even better numbers in limited time as a September call-up. In 29 big-league ABs, Hensley slashed .345/.441/.586.

All of Houston remembers Yordan Alvarez’ titanic walk-off in Game 1 of the ALDS. What cannot be forgotten is the eight-pitch walk Hensley worked in his first playoff AB , not being overwhelmed by the moment. He got another pinch-hit AB the next day, grounding out to shortstop in another quality, seven-pitch AB. He has not stepped into the box since October 13th.

If the definition of insanity really is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, at what point does it become insane to keep penciling in some combination of Diaz and Mancini at DH?

“What happened last night?”

Any and all questions can be lumped into this one. The Astros had been a train off the tracks, gaining speed as they went, rolling through the American league with a 7-0 record. That they built a five-run lead with their ace on the mound in three innings made 8-0 seem inevitable.

A defeated ace, some shoddy bullpen management and questionable lineup decisions prevented the inevitable. A dream start became a nightmare. The team and the city are left asking, “what happened last night?”

The obvious follow-up question remains: “How the heck do they prevent it from happening again tonight?”

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