As far as bad losses go, last night was about as bad as it gets.
The Astros came out of the All-Star break with momentum, getting to Shohei Ohtani on the bump and defeating the Angels 7-5 on Friday. Through the first six-and-a-half innings Saturday, Houston was on cruise control. The Astros offense had pushed across nine runs and their ace was mowing down the Angels, racking up 13 strikeouts in only six innings. The Astros entered the bottom of the 7th with a seemingly insurmountable 9-3 lead.
Then it all went array.
After a long break between innings, Valdez walked the leadoff hitter, Matt Thais. Valdez retired Luis Rengifo on a fielder's choice before setting up to face Zach Neto for a fourth time. Valdez had owned Neto the first three at-bats, striking him out in all three. Neto came out on the winning end of this battle, however, depositing Valdez' 1-1 fastball into the left field seats. Houston still held a 9-5 lead, and while Valdez was no longer in line for a quality start, one would assume that Houston would have no issues holding the lead.
Valdez was set to face Shoehi Ohtani next. He threw only two pitches before being lifted with a calf injury. Now, for as many questionable calls as Baker has made this season, that wasn't one. Valdez is as durable as it gets, the bullpen has been totally overworked, and Valdez began the inning at 91 pitches. If he could have gotten out of there with a six-run lead in tact, the Astros could have rode the rest of the game out without burning any leverage arms.
Dusty Baker was optimistic it was just a cramp, but Valdez said afterward he didn't want to risk 100 innings in a trade-off for one.
Surely a bullpen as deep as the Astros could hold a four-run lead needing only eight outs, right?
Ryne Stanek had other plans. After retiring Ohtani, Stanek allowed a walk and back-to-back singles, bringing another run across. Bryan Abreu entered at that point, and the overworked reliever spun a slider that didn't bite to Mike Moustakas. After Moustakas deposited the offering into the right-field seats, the game was somehow tied.
In eerily reminiscent fashion to their wild victory over the Rangers before the All-Star break, Houston punched back in the next half inning to regain the lead. Yainer Diaz led off with a single before Chas McCormick went deep, putting the Astros ahead 11-9. After a quiet bottom of the 8th, Diaz then drove in a run in the top of the 9th, giving Ryan Pressly a three-run lead to work with.
For a closer that hadn't allowed a hit in a month, that should be no problem. Ohtani led off the 9th with a bomb before the Angels strung together three straight singles to load the bases with nobody out, needing two runs to tie and three to win.
After yet another inexcusable passed ball from Martín Maldonado allowed all three runners to advance, Houston now led by only one run. The passed ball was Maldonado's league-leading seventh, and ended up looming large. A single from Hunter Renfroe ended up tying the game, but it's no guarantee the Angels are able to push another run across were it not for the passed ball.
As each day passes, it becomes more and more unexplainable for Dusty Baker to continue to give Maldonado over 70% of the reps behind the plate.
The Astros went down in short order in the 10th, but not before a noteworthy at-bat from Jeremy Peña. Peña went down on strikes, but clearly pulled up limp on a swinging strike in the middle of the at-bat. Dusty Baker came out to check on him, but left Peña in the game. The limited shortstop stood no chance against Carlos Estevez.
While he was "healthy" enough to hit, he was pulled less than a minute later for the defensive half. Phil Maton did his job on the bump, inducing a tailor-made double play ground ball. Dubón flipped to Grae Kessinger, now in the game at short as Peña's replacement, who stepped on the bag and then fired to first. The would-be third out instead sailed past José Abreu, bringing home the winning run for LA.
The Astros had successfully blown a 9-3 lead and a 12-9 lead. They lost their ace and starting shortstop in the process, as well as another game in the AL West standings to the Rangers.
Why Peña was healthy enough to hit but not to play defense remains in question. If he can't play defense, don't let him stay in the box for the biggest at-bat of the game.
The Astros will look to bounce back today with Cristian Javier on the bump. The bullpen is totally taxed, with Maton, Neris, Abreu and Pressly all having thrown in the first two games of the series. Javier hasn't made it through five innings in his last three starts.
Last night's loss was mentally draining and totally inexcusable for a team with title aspirations. The physical ramifications of an injured Valdez and further taxed bullpen may be even worse.