Houston Astros: is it over?

Name your favorite heartbreaking Astros moment.

You know which one it is.

Albert Pujols hits a 3-run home run to take the lead in game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.  Photo credit: ESPN Sports

Albert Pujols hits a 3-run home run to take the lead in game 5 of the 2005 NLCS.
Photo credit: ESPN Sports

Yesterday’s loss is too fresh in the memory to be scorched in our minds.  Sure, it hurts.  It stings and it’s tender, like a day old wasp attack.  Those of us who were sitting back, watching it live, and still coming off the 7th inning high that ended just a bit too prematurely, with 2 runners in scoring position left hanging out to dry after 2 successive outs. There was that thought in the back of your head, wasn’t there?  That lingering thought on Jake Marisnick and Carlos Gomez, ready and waiting, and watching a pop fly and a strike out keep them on base.  Would that come back to haunt us?  Did we get too carried away and relaxed?  A 3-run rally in the 7th – was it good enough?

If you were like me, and had that lingering thought (and let’s face it, with the threat of the bullpen looming, we all had that lingering thought.  Except, perhaps, those clowns sitting around in Austin) your stomach started to churn when Will Harris put 2 on base, with no outs.  Or maybe your lizard brain kicked in when the 8th inning began, and Harris walked out to the mound.  Either way, the peril of that 8th inning was apparent long before that bases loaded single that brought the score to 6-3.  It was too late to make a switch without handing over the game, at this point.  Pop-ups, fly-outs, line-outs – nothing short of 3 solid strikeouts would save this inning, and maybe even the game, and the Astros playoff bullpen simply wasn’t deep enough to pull that off.

So we watched, in horror, as Tony Sipp was thrown under the bus sent in to try to clean up the disaster area created by an over-extended Harris pitching appearance.  Then we watched another line drive creep by the infield, and another run come in, while the Astros couldn’t manage an out at any one of the 3 occupied bases.  Then the Sipp/Correa magic ball that couldn’t be caught, and allowed for the tying run to cross the plate.  Still no outs, and the Royals were working Sipp into early retirement.  A few outs and an appearance by our closer, Luke Garrison, and the inning was over.  The damage had been done, though.  The Kansas City Royals had rallied to not only overcome a 4 point deficit, but managed 11 at bats, 8 reaching base, 6 hits, and 2 walks before the bullpen managed 3 outs.

Yeah, it still hurts, and it was a slow-moving trainwreck.  However, it’s not the one that hurts the most. The heartbreaking Astros moment came in game 5 of the 2005 National League Championship Series, when the evil villain named Albert Pujols crushed the dreams of a National League Championship Series being won at home.

That game was eerily similar to the game the Astros played yesterday.  The Cardinals had a somewhat early lead, and the 7th inning was epic for the Astros.  Similarly to yesterday’s game, 3 runs came in that inning via home run (a 3-run homer by Lance Berkman in that game, while Correa and Rasmus combined with a 2-run and a single homerun in yesterday’s game), the Astros could taste the home-game victory, and they were a few short plays from advancing and avoiding that last sudden-death game that would put them within earshot of being sent packing.  Unlike yesterday’s game, the Astros got within a single strike, up 4-2, with 2 on base and the Cardinals’ best slugger at bat.

Yeah.  We remember that.  The park was loud and proud.  The area sports bars were jam-packed with fans.  The city was on fire, but about to be smothered by a wet blanket in the form of a game-shattering 3-run homer, on 2 outs and 2 strikes.  The single play that sucked the air out of the city and the momentum out of the Astros line-up, in the top of the 9th.  The Astros didn’t recover that game, and the Cardinals won game 5 by a single run, 5-4.  Even though the Astros traveled back up to Busch Stadium and won the last ever game played in the stadium to eventually advance to the first World Series the club has ever seen, that moment was perhaps the darkest in the history of the club.

It has yet to be seen if this moment will take the lead.  This postseason run certainly isn’t over yet, and we shouldn’t be so ready and willing to write it off just yet.  Sure, the team is less experienced.  The manager, AJ Hinch, is just as wet behind the ears as the collective roster of the Astros team, as well.  This shows and is providing a very valuable learning experiene all around.  It’s not over just yet, though, and the come-back after what certainly is the most heartbreaking loss in the Astros history shows that this club can survive and come back.  The roster’s different, even the league is different.  The heart’s still there, though.  We’ve seen it in the late-season struggles.  We’ve seen this team surge before when all appeared to be lost.  Many of us were saying “better luck next year” with a single week left.

But the Astros showed us.  They came back to win 2 consecutive road series and made us all believers.

So, is it over?  No.  We’ve still got at least 1 game to play, and here’s how we are going to win it.

The Astros bullpen had gone through a rough stretch in September, and the limited playoff roster certainly cut into the bullpen rotation.  In fact, out of 6 relief pitchers, 3 were being consistently used (if not overused) in this in this series, and out of 5 starting pitchers, only 3 were being routinely utilized: Harris, Sipp, and Gregerson, with 2, 2.2 and 3 innings, respectively.  That gave every batter in the Kansas City lineup at least a single opportunity to face these relief pitchers and learn their game.  And they learned it.  Yesterday’s game, with all 3 of these pitchers facing KC batters in the 8th inning, was evidence.  The more opportunity a batter has with a pitcher, the more opportunity that batter has to learn to hit against that pitcher.

So we have to look at and utilize the bullpen that KC hasn’t had a lot of time with, in order to pull off this win.  If our lineup produces 4 or more runs, this game is winnable.  Both of these are certainly doable.  In fact, there has only been 1 game in the postseason where the Astros produced fewer than 4 runs, and that was the shutout win against the Yankees.  The Astros have managed at least 4 runs in all 4 games of the American League Division Series, so this next game will come down to the bullpen management.  Sounds easy enough, right?  Maybe.  We’ve got 1 starter for the game, Collin McHugh, and 10 pitchers available for relief, including starting pitcher Mike Fiers – who has not played a single game in the postseason this year.

So McHugh starts Wednesday night, and can be stretched past the 5th if, and only if, he shows no sign of struggle.  Any sign of struggle in or after the 5th, and he must be pulled.  Next up, Fiers.  Fiers has the caliber of pitching that makes him an effective starter, and can certainly take on a single inning, at minimum. Same drill – stretch him until he shows the first sign of struggle.  Neshek, Perez, and Fields can be utilized for single at-bats versus right-handed batters.  Single at-bats only for these 3, since the Royals’ roster is heavy on the left-handed batters.  Harris, Sipp, and Gregerson need not be used.  KC has their number, and won’t hestitate to use it.  If the Astros need to use their starters in single-inning relief, then do that.  It’s do or die now.  Frankly this move should have been made yesterday, but the whole team’s learning.

The key will be to not let Kansas City get comfortable with the pitching rotation.  Knock off any momentum that threatens to appear.  You can bet they’re going to be playing that same game, and we’ve given them the opportunity to raise those stakes.  So, we may as well be willing to bet it all, too.  If we can manage that, we can take this game.


One thought on “Houston Astros: is it over?

  1. Pingback: Discover: Wednesday Wonderings « MLB.com Blogs

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