By Will Martin
After taking two of three from the New York Yankees to begin the 2014 season the Houston Astros have succeeded in losing 14 of 17 games, including a seven game skid awaiting Houston when they trek north by northwest to play the Seattle Mariners (and King Felix) on April 21st for the first of a three game set. Upon completion of that Seattle visit the Astros then complete a schedule where they played 12 of 15 games on the road.
The record says 5-14. Dead last in the A.L. West. Fact and there’s no argument there. With this still the youngest team in all of baseball there are still many intangibles that lie in their favor. Using 2013 as the measuring stick for comparison Houston began 2013 7-19. With 11 days until the start of May perhaps we see a streak of play where Houston can go 6-5 and improve their record to 11-19 or 12-18 for April. A slow, steady improvement.
Some notable numbers: Despite a winless week and two blown saves in the final inning Bo Porter and crew can take solace in the fact that Houston ranks second behind the Baltimore Orioles in defense, having allowed only six errors in over 700 chances. That is displaying some tough leather. Up the middle SS Jonathan Villar and Jose Altuve have each handled 164 chances without allowing an error.
Also a strange but true factoid that is a source for comfort in the days and weeks ahead: Houston is 1st in the AL and 3rd in the MLB for ground ball to fly ball outs with a 1.85 mark. Despite the winless week seven of the nine games were decided by two runs or less and four 1-run ballgames. Houston sits at 1-4 in one run contests. Another sign of great, solid starting pitching.
Even with the new acquisition of George Springer to man the outfield for Team Porter the bat power has been lacking, A hit here or there and maybe we don’t see two 1-0 losses to Texas last week. Jason Castro and Jonathan Villar lead Houston with 3 HRs and 6 RBIs apiece in the early going. However, In 13 games the Astros have scored three runs or less for a 1-12 mark in said contests.
When Houston scores four runs or more they are 4-1. If an Astro homers in a game they are 5-6 and 0-8 if no one goes deep. The week began with a three game set with an ever improving Kansas City Royals team who on Jackie Robinson Night would fan 12 Astros aside from a Carlos Corporan homer in a 4-2 loss. Yordaro Ventura with the win in seven innings of work and aided by an Omar Infante home run.
Lucas Harrell pitched five innings allowing all four runs with difficulty finding the strike zone on the night. He was scheduled for reassignment after the game.
Jason Castro spoke of the team perhaps pressing a little too hard.
“I think probably we’re trying to do a little too much,” Castro said. “We need to trust ourselves and stay within ourselves and not try to force the issue. That’s kind of the problem right now. I know everyone is trying, including me. We know what we’re capable of sometimes we’re getting a little too aggressive where we’re trying to force the issue. I think we have to take a step back and learn to trust it and know we’re capable of getting things done. We have to take what they give us and work from there.”
George Springer made his major league debut one night later on the 16th. Going 1 for 5 with two strikeouts, he was on base when Jason Castro hit one of two 2-run homers hit this date. Sadly, a 4-2 lead could not be held as Kansas City prevailed in 11 innings 6-4 on a Mike Moustakas homer to break a 4-all tie.
Lucas Harrell pitched although he was under the weather allowing two runs on four hits in six innings of work. The bullpen failed Lucas Harrell once again.
“You’ve got to go out there and battle,” Harrell said. “I was lucky enough to have good defensive plays the first couple of innings and kind of bailed me out until I got my feet planted a little bit in the fourth. I’ll take it any day of the week. It’s a good lineup over there and I’m just happy to get through six.”
Marc Krauss added another 2-run homer in this loss to the Royals as Bo Porter admitted a real concern about his team having difficulty being able to string together runs aside from the long ball.
“We all know the home run is the toughest thing to do in our game, and we need to get to the point where we’re sustaining rallies and scoring runs by driving guys in,” Porter said. “When I look at a player’s RBIs, the first thing I look at is I subtract the home runs. You subtract the home runs because they’re knocking in themselves. That will really tell you how many runs they actually knocked in.”
After getting swept at home by the Royals it was onto Oakland to play an Athletic team that had a 20-5 career mark on the Astros. You can make that 23-5 after another three game sweep. To Oakland’s credit their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in 17 of 19 starts.
Jarred Cosart would get lit up for seven first inning runs by Oakland on the 18th en route to an 11-3 defeat. Alberto Callaspo and Josh Redick each went deep.
Saturday brought back memories of 2013 where 29 leads were lost or blown by the Houston relief. Hard luck loser/starter Brett Oberholzer scattered 8 hits in 5 and 2/3 innings, allowed only a run. Middle relief got out of two bases loaded jams and were three outs away from a 3-1 victory. Chad Qualls came aboard and promptly served up a solo blast to Jed Lowrie, a walk to Josh Donaldson and single to Yoenis Cespedes.
In a case of deja-vu Callaspo delivered the game tying single followed by a walk-off single by Josh Reddick for an Oakland 4-3 win. Chad Qualls sat before his stall in a very quiet locker room postgame.
“It’s frustrating, especially for me,” Qualls said. “We had a chance to win the game and [Oberholtzer] pitched his heart out and he’s been battling sickness as well and he did a hell of a job. To come away with nothing and to have them celebrate on the field is not a good feeling.”
“I don’t know if I was trying to generate more power,” Qualls said. “I haven’t been out in a while and everything else had been going on this week. My sinker had been flat, and looking back on it, I didn’t get any ground balls, which is super uncharacteristic of myself.
“Obviously, I’ll get it locked in and get it back to the way I was throwing. I felt I was in such a groove there. I got bitten by the sickness everybody was getting. That’s definitely not an excuse. We’ve got to go out there no matter what and get the job down.”
Bo Porter of course visibly frustrated at the sight of a second blown save in four games.
“It’s a tough loss, especially playing as well as we played leading up to that ninth inning,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “We didn’t close it out.”
As for the bullpen by committee approach Bo Porter has been speaking about?
“We’re going to continue to go with the guys that are down there,” Porter said. “That’s all we can do. We can’t go with somebody who’s not down there. The guys down there are going to have to get it done.”
A Marwin Gonzalez solo blast was all Houston could muster in a 4-1 getaway loss to the A’s in what amounted to an 0-7 week. 5-14 for the season while Oakland improved to 13-5 on the young season. They shall next host Texas while Houston plays in Seattle before playing four with Oakland to finish out the remainder of this week.
An ability for run production to happen at a more regular rate with bats getting hotter is all that is lacking in the 2014 Houston Astros Cookbook for victories and improvements. It will come. Indeed it is coming.
4/21 @Mariners 9:10 p.m.
4/22 @Mariners 9:10 p.m.
4/23 @Mariners 2:40 p.m.
4/24 @A’s 7:10 p.m.
4/25 @A’s 7:10 p.m.
4/26 @A’s 6:10 p.m.
4/27 @A’s 1:10 p.m.