HOUSTON – Minute Maid Park, which could not have a less ominous name, has become the Graveyard of Pitchers. Most who pitch for the Astros can’t stay away from injuries or, in rare cases (not rare enough), performance-enhancing drugs.
Most of the pitchers on the other side can’t avoid being lit up like, well, the Fourth of July. Bombs away every day, Crawford Boxes under fire.
The holiday weekend fit the pattern. The storied New York Yankees arrived to play what could have been hyped as the American League Championship Preview. The Yankees are the most iconic sports franchise in America, and they have its most sensational millennial superstar, Aaron Judge. The Astros, well stocked themselves in millennial might, have the best record in baseball as midsummer break approaches.
This most humidified city longs for October, where everywhere is climatically pleasant and the 2017 World Series is its rightful destiny, product of a decade of prime draft location and impeccable calculation.
This could be the most successful tank expedition in this city in 3 ½ decades. Nothing like it since the Rockets colluded with a fading Elvin Hayes to lose enough games to draft a Nigerian center named Olajuwon. If that’s what it takes to bring a championship to Houston – and Hakeem gave us two – well by Gawd let’s show the Philadelphia 76ers how to do it.
The Astros are a spunky team, with a manager, A.J. Hinch, who has a knack for ending slumps before they go very far. He and wily pitching coach Brent Strom can sense when some erratic novice is about to heat up for a day or two. A Francisco Martes, a Dayan Diaz, somebody always comes through for Hinch in a pinch.
Though most of Hinch’s players are callow, they are self-confident and team-confident, supremely aware of their superior athleticism but not complacent about it. Equally aware is the reawakened Astros’ fan base. It’s never seen a world championship but came out en masse to witness possible humiliation of the franchise that has collected 27 of them. More than 40,000 attended each of the three games in this series.
Still, something was missing. While Houston was taking this confrontation most Seri-ously, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was not. He rested his best player, the towering young Judge.
Suddenly the Yankees are acting like the NBA. The Golden State Warriors came to town and planted Steph Curry on the bench.
Here was one of the 100 greatest marketing moments in the past four decades of baseball. For the 92nd time, baseball blew it. Yes I’ve been counting.
Major League Baseball had the national sporting stage to itself, football and basketball having recently exited, along with the increasingly relevant Stanley Cup Playoffs. There’s no major golf or tennis tournament going on.
But of course, baseball cannot get out of its own way. The most historic of all American sports – nothing else is close – is persistently blind to marketing opportunity.
Commissioner Rob Manfred is a lawyer, not a media wonk. The Yankees-Astros showdown was not on national TV, was not even on Texas TV. Fox Southwest, which monopolizes the Astros and Rangers, opted for Rangers-White Sox.
But back to Girardi. For Friday night’s series opener he gave Judge a second consecutive start without a glove. Instead of right field, which he plays quite capably, if recklessly, Judge was Designated Hitter. That’s a role he does not like. He says so much bench time “gets me out of my rhythm.”
Just as he expected, Judge looked uncomfortable at DH, going 0-for-6 on Thursday/Friday. His bat was not missed in the Houston opener. The Yankees romped, 13-4, as Michael Pineda outpitched Lance McCullers.
Perhaps overconfident, with Houston set to start Game 2 with the scatter-armed 21-year-old Martes, Girardi ordered more rest for Judge. Not only took away his glove, but his bat as well.
Girardi saw Houston as the most suitable venue for extra training room rehab on a knee that was bruised in a spectacular crash/catch at Fenway Park’s right-field wall, on April 26 — Judge’s 25th birthday.
In various sessions with reporters the manager conceded that Judge was healthy enough to play but that his legs could benefit from rest: “He’s always diving for balls. He has enough strawberries to last a couple of months. . . . This is probably going to . . . reduce the risk of injury.”
Well, Judge did get into Saturday’s game after all. He ended a 32-game on-base streak, as a pinch-hitter with his team down 7-6 in the 9th after blowing a 3-run lead in the 8th, Evan Gattis reaching the railroad tracks.
Facing the 99 mph heat of Kenny Giles, Judge fouled out to first. The question not to ask: So Aaron, how did you enjoy your day off?
You’d think it impossible for MLB to miss on Judge. This is a truly Bunyanesque force: 6-7, 282 pounds. He has homespun, affable charisma, a larger Mickey Mantle. Judge strikes out often – 28 percent of the time – yet still hit .325 for the half-season, with a major-league-leading 27 homers, some traveling 500 feet.
Girardi regained his senses on Sunday and put Judge back in right. Judge was his old young self, 2-for-4 and striking out the two times he didn’t reach base.
In the series finale, Astros starter Mike Fiers was clearly energized by Sunday’s near-capacity crowd. He found extra zip for his usually sluggish fastball. He struck out 7 in 4 innings, allowed no runs. But the adrenaline surge wore him down. He walked 4, threw 105 times and was done before the 5th inning began.
The trouble with McCullers, Fiers and Houston’s other starters du jour, Martes, Brad Peacock and Joe Musgrove, is that they accumulate so many strikeouts and walks that they’re gasping to get five innings. McCullers, No. 2 in the rotation after 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, has pitched into the 7th only three times this year.
So Hinch must overuse his bullpen. Even so, the way the Astros crush the ball, they had no problem raking the Yankees’ ‘pen. On Saturday they walloped the triple-digit velocity of Aroldis Chapman. On Sunday they pounded out 14 hits against a trio of Yankees on the way to an 8-1 breeze.
But what to make of it? The Yanks are far off their A-game. They have lost 15 of 20 as they careen into an All-Star break that Girardi wanted to begin early.
So the Astros remain in command of the American League, even as Keuchel lounges for 40 days on the 10-day DL. In the spirit of abundant rest that is stalling baseball, as it did basketball, the Astros are holding back Keuchel until next Tuesday’s ASG is over. He’s taking the long way back from a pinched nerve in the neck.
Meanwhile, general manager Jeff Luhnow is in trade negotiations for Oakland’s Sonny Gray and Pittsburgh’s Gerrit Cole and other prized starting pitchers. Luhnow’s hand is strengthened by two top-75 overall draft picks acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals as punishment for a hacking scandal.
Houston’s arms shortage was most apparent Friday, when outfielder Nori Aoki was summoned to the mound with his 76 mph four-seamer. Worse news followed: one of the team’s bright hopes, 23-year-old David Paulino (2-0 this season), suspended for 80 games for PEDs.
Alas, the Yankees, now trailing Boston in the AL East, have their own mound issues. C.C. Sabathia, their best starter, is 36 and returned from the DL (hamstring) by getting knocked out by the Blue Jays in the third inning. Meanwhile, Chapman’s control is shaky, as is his shoulder. Masahiro Tanaka was a meatball factory until his recent back to back quality starts.
Much can change, of course. Yankees GM Brian Cashman has a better record than Luhnow at in-season dealing. So notwithstanding all the weekend joy that flowed at Minute Maid, let’s recognize that we have not seen Cashman, Girardi, Judge and the Yankees at their best. See them in October.
For 13 years, Alan Truex covered the Astros and Major League Baseball for the Houston Chronicle.