Last week saw the Astros lose their first series in the month of May dropping two of three in Boston against a now resurgent Red Sox team that had been awful this season. After beating the Astros, they swept the Mariners, so reports of their demise are clearly premature.
For the Astros, they bounced back taking the series in the “summer boot series” against the Arlington Rangers. Pitching was still the talk of both series with mostly great performances from the starters and the bullpen. In case you hadn’t noticed, Justin Verlander is still very good at baseball. He currently leads all of baseball with six wins, an ERA of 1.22, WHIP of 0.72 and opposition averages and OPS of just .161/.441.
Oh, and Famber Valdez is on a historic pace.
A pair of pitching recoveries.
Sometimes, it is better to be lucky than good. That apparently is the case for Jake Odorizzi, who crumpled to the ground during his last start and was carted off on a stretcher. Most feared the worst, including the right hander who had been masterful in his recent starts after coming out of the gate a bit on the shaky side. Turns out, he’s already playing catch. While scary, his ankle injury was far milder than anyone expected and he should be back in the lineup within days instead of months.
And speaking of bouncing back, Jose Urquidy went six-and-two-thirds innings against the Rangers on Sunday striking out 10 and essentially never relinquishing command. It was refreshing to see Urquidy find his groove and stay in it for an entire game. He’s 4-1 in eight games with a 4.25 ERA, but he had struggled recently. Getting him back to his normal is a huge deal for the lineup, despite it being one of the best in baseball anyway.
An embarrassment of riches?
As we mentioned, the Astros are one of the best staffs in baseball. They lead the AL in ERA and opponent OPS as well as shutouts. They are in the top five in multiple pitching categories for both starters and relievers. But, what if they got back their 1B starter? Over the weekend, Lance McCullers, Jr. began pitching from a mound for the first time since spring training, signaling a rehab stint is probably not too far down the road.
When he returns, the Astros will have Verlander, McCullers, Urquidy, Valdez, Odorizzi and Luis Garcia, not to mention Christian Javier, who threw six innings of one-run ball in a loss to the Rangers on Friday. They may have to consider returning to a six-man rotation given the potential talent in that lineup.
But at the plate…
On the other side of things, the bats remain a work in progress. If you exclude the expected bottom-scraping average for catcher Martin Maldonado, whose glove work clearly makes up for some of that ineptitude at the plate, you could circle Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel as problems in the batting order. Bregman, who looked better on Sunday, admitted he was still trying to get his swing right. He’s slashing .229/.351/.407/.758, which look more like what he was doing during his injury-plagued 2021 season than what we have come to expect from the third baseman.
Gurriel has managed to pull himself out of the cellar with a good overall week last week, but .230/.266/.400/.666 line is brutal for a capable and historically solid hitter. With those soft spots and the inconsistencies that are typical of most seasons at the dish, the Astros are still searching for improvement at the plate.
The best offense could be a good defense.
While the bats are struggling, the defense continues to sizzle. The Astros are absolutely crushing the rest of baseball in defensive runs saved according with 32. The next best? Cleveland with 18. This is what you might expect from the infield with great fielders at every position including rookie Jeremy Peña, but Kyle Tucker is now one of the best outfielders in baseball and Yordan Alvarez has surprisingly turned into more than a competent left fielder with some spectacular catches and an arm that runners do not want to challenge.
When you add a pair of catchers behind the plate who routinely throw out base runners and one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, it’s easy to see how a team that is struggling to score runs is winning. Now, if the bats eventually come around…
The Cleveland Guardians (we are still trying to process that name change) come to Minute Maid Park for three games before the Astros head back on the road for three straight series against bottom-dwellers. They begin with a three-game set in Seattle, a team that has gone from dark horse pick to win the AL West to some truly awful baseball. That’s followed by three in Oakland and three more in Kansas City. This is the time for the Astros to feast on lesser opponents.