Have the Houston Astros Turned the Corner?

Matt Dominguez and the Astros are stringing hits and wins together. Photo Courtesy: Rick Leal
Matt Dominguez and the Astros are stringing hits and wins together. Photo Courtesy: Rick Leal

By Will Martin

There comes a time  in the course of a season where David meets his Goliath and triumphs by way of the underdog. There comes that time where you come to trust your instincts and just do what comes naturally. In doing so the desired result will make a welcome appearance.

Fans of the Houston Astros can take solace in a solid week of play. Winning both series over the free-falling Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox marked a first this year for Team Porter. Namely four wins in five games while improving to 16-28 with a ten day ten game road trip beginning May 19th in Anaheim with the Angels for three followed by four in Seattle and then three in Kansas City.

A 5-5 road trip would be acceptable. 6-4 rather pleasing. 7-3 true gravy to a well toasted biscuit. The starting pitching has been stellar all year. The relief is beginning to clamp down and hold leads when given the ball. The number 11 has been pretty prevalent in hits per game as of late for the Astros.

“I think we’ve kind of started to find some consistency in the offense,” catcher Jason Castro said. “It seems like we’ve been pretty consistently getting guys on base throughout the game, putting up double-digit hits pretty frequently, and the hitting and pitching has been doing a great job. When we can match those things up and stay consistent on offense, that’s going to be key for us.”

Jose Altuve has been key at the plate while riding a ten game winning streak and hitting .391. Dexter Fowler has now walked in eight consecutive games, one short of tying Morgan Ensberg from August 2nd-11th 2006. Matt Dominguez with his third multiple homer game in Sunday’s 8-2 victory over John Danks and the White Sox. Chris Carter also connecting for his sixth of the season to give Brad Peacock (1-4)  his first victory of the season allowing two runs and five hits in six and two thirds innings.

Consider this: since April 16th the Astros team is hitting at a .252 clip after hitting a paltry .185 in their first 14 games. In the last seven games the Astros have hit .296 with six games of 11 hit offense. The top of the lineup with Altuve, Fowler, George Springer (14 for 47 .298) and Jason Castro have provided timely hitting to ease some of the pressure off the rest of the lineup.

“It’s coming together,” manager Bo Porter said. “I like the balance and what we have going right now. It’s good having George behind Altuve. He’s going to see more fastballs, and Dexter is swinging the bat extremely well. And the guys we look to drive in runs are coming behind them.”

Case in point. On May 14th a 4-0 Ranger lead was erased in the 6th and 7th innings when Nick Tepesch exited the game and George Springer hit a game tying homer into the Crawford boxes to knot things up at four apiece. Matt Dominguez set off a wild on-field celebration with a walk-off single and a 5-4 victory for the Astros over the Texas Rangers. Their first series win over Texas since 2008.

Springer’s blast his first at Minute Maid Park.

“I was looking for something to hit,” said Springer. “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, but ended up hitting one. It’s obviously big for me as a player, but also to help the team tie it up and give us a spark, I guess.”

That was also the last time the Astros won two in a row for Texas. Remember how the Rangers owned Houston in 2013 at a 17-2 mark? The two losses happened on Opening Day 3/31 and again in mid August. Six games in the Texas battle for the Silver Boot is even-steven at three-all.

“From the dominance they’ve shown against us here lately, it’s definitely something to be proud of,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “I’m proud of the men in that room in there for the way they battled today. If last night was our biggest win and had our best individual performance in [Dallas] Keuchel, I think tonight was our biggest win as far as team performance goes.”

That game was the fifth straight game with 11 hits-a first in franchise history and big nights from Dexter Fowler (3 for 3 two walks), Jason Castro and Matt Dominguez with two hits apiece. Having watched this game from start to finish this is a game Astros fans will look at and remember as a turning point to the season. Things are really beginning to click.

From the pitching standpoint Tony Sipp deserves some honorable mention. Since making his Major League debut on May 2nd against the Mariners he has retired all 20 batters he has faced. 11 of those have gone by way of the strikeout in six and two thirds innings.

Sipp is the first Astro in history to not allow a baserunner in five straight appearances to start a season. The first since Fernando Rodney with Tampa Bay in 2012. According to the Elias Sports Bureau only one other player has started off so effectively, retiring the first 22 players faced as a Colorado Rockies hurler. His name was Tim Harikkala in 2004.

If you looked at the A.L. West standings and saw the Rangers and Astros a mere five games apart from 4th or 5th would you have believed it? Houston is a team on the rise and will continue to harp on this. Imagine if there weren’t eight blown saves by the bullpen…a .500 team!

Dallas Keuchel begins the road trip with a (4-2 3.06) opposing Garrett Richards (4-0 2.42) in California. The Angels have won eight of ten to Houston’s six of ten. He’s been the hoss of the starting rotation with quality starts going six innings all season. Jarred Cosart is beginning to find his groove at 3-3 after a tough 1-3 beginning.

Need proof of some added incentive for a pitcher wanting to get the trust of his skipper? Witness what was discussed on Saturday when the Astros held on for a 6-5 victory and Bo Porter was ready to pull Cosart in the 5th.

“It’s becoming a stressful inning, so I walked out to the mound and I said, ‘What are you going to tell me to convince me to leave you in the game?'” Porter said. “He said, ‘Well, you told me to get three outs before they scored. They haven’t scored yet, and I’m going to get three outs.’ I said, ‘OK, see you in the dugout.'”

Cosart got his guy and qualifications for a complete game.

“That’s good maturation, though,” Porter said. “For him to find a way to make it through five innings, it’s huge because there’s going to be times when he’s going to go out there with his ‘A’ stuff and he’s going to breeze through seven or eight. A day like [Saturday], for him not to have his fastball command and really just scuffle through five innings and only give up three runs and leave us in position to turn the game over to the bullpen, that could boost your confidence.”

For those of you who like the sabermetric factoids here you go: The Astros pitching staff ranks 1st in the AL and 4th in the majors for ground ball outs to fly balls with a 1.71 ratio. Dallas Keuchel 1st (3.52) Scott Feldman 7th (2.20) Jarred Cosart 10th (2.10). That’s a lot of ground balls induced!

May 14th Kyle Farnsworth was released by the New York Mets and now joins the Houston fold in the pen. His experience will be a welcome addition for mentoring and for being a potential closer. That torch is still being held by Chad Qualls. Lefty reliever Raul Valdes has been dealt to the Blue Jays for a player to be named later and /or cash options.

When the Astros go deep they are 15-11, 1-17 when they do not. With a win this night it will mark their first three game winning streak of the season. In September Houston reached a four game win streak. There were four streaks of three wins in the inaugural AL season.

Still Noteworthy: Jose Altuve has now gone 79 games without an error on 379 fielding chances. Since 7/9/13 Jose has only made one error in 508 total chances for a career fielding percentage of .998! That is number one among second basemen in all of baseball.

With a turning point game now behind them let’s see how the ten game homestand treats Bo Porter and company. A nine win month in April. A chance to reach double digits in May should the consistency continue. No reason to believe otherwise. The progression certainly fun to watch.

Upcoming Schedule
5/20 @Angels        9:05 p.m.
5/21  @Angels       9:05 p.m.
5/22  @Mariners    9:10 p.m.
5/23  @Mariners    9:10 p.m.
5/24  @Mariners    9:10 p.m.
5/25  @Mariners    3:10 p.m.