HOUSTON — Baseball is back in Houston. The Astros are fresh off of their first ever sweep of the Oakland A’s, followed by a sweep in San Diego to complete an 8-1 road trip that gave them a 4-game lead in the American League West.
How, do you ask? Pitching. The Astros are 14-7 and currently boast an AL-best ERA of 3.11.
Lefthander Dallas Keuchel, the team’s ace, leads the way with a 0.73 ERA and a record of 3-0. Keuchel, a 7th-round draft pick by Houston in 2009, had his break-out season in 2014, winning 12 games and posting a 2.93 ERA.
His fastball is slow (89 mph) but low. He leads the majors with 69 percent groundballs, and 91 percent of them have been turned into outs.
The bullpen has come together nicely to help the Astros in the early going in addition to the superb work of the starting rotation. New additions Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson have held their own with 5 holds and 4 saves as set-up-man and closer.
Collin McHugh opened the series in San Diego hoping to extend his major-league-best 8-game winning streak – something that has gone way under the radar.
This is not one of the many prized draft picks of the Houston youth movement. He was claimed off waivers from Colorado two years ago. He doesn’t throw especially hard, and his slider and curve are considered average. But at 27 he knows how to confuse batters. He’s in the conversation with some accomplished pitchers. He’s 10-0 with a 2.08 ERA over 14 starts since August 1.
According to MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart, McHugh was fine through the first 4 innings Monday, but met with trouble in the fifth.
“Had it not been for a two-out infield hit by Padres pitcher James Shields in the fifth inning, McHugh might have joined some select company,” McTaggart wrote.
He was referring to Roy Oswalt’s club mark of 9 straight wins. It was not to be. McHugh surrendered three runs and was pulled after the sixth with the game locked in a 3-3 tie, he did not factor in the decision.
But the Astros did something that is becoming more and more common in this year’s team. They rallied. Scoring 3 runs in the eighth and 2 in the ninth, to win.
Manager A.J. Hinch has seen a pattern, his team scoring in twos and threes late in games. “We lay in the weeds and then we do it,” he said. “It’s an interesting offense.”
It may hold up. Young names like Gattis and Springer can put up slugging numbers with the best in the bigs. They also have the best of the littles in Jose Altuve, the 5-foot-6 line drive machine (.355 batting average).
When the Astros returned home to open a four-game series against Seattle on Thursday night, they found a city much more excited about the basketball team, the Rockets, than about them. Six losing years in a row will drive off all but the most ardent baseball fans.
The Astros have had early-season flashes before, only to return to earth in May. If this time the early promise holds, it will be interesting to see what Houston’s response will be.