Houston Astros: Yes, it’s time

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Going into game 2 of the 3rd game, on the road series with division opponent Seattle Mariners, the Astros had a must need win ahead of them to keep a hold on a possible series win, and break a 2 game and 2 series losing streak, as well as get a 1st division win. Keuchel started, and fans rejoiced. Three innings blew by with barely a runner hitting base, for both teams, and then the Mariners snuck one by in a tense 4th inning. Astros were only down by 1, but at bats were still rather strained and unproductive.

Then the 5th inning happened. Keuchel had some rather uncharacteristic walks, a base hit, and suddenly bases were loaded with a single out. There was no getting out of this unscathed. Another grounder/force out to home gave the Astros 2, with some hope. Marte singles to Gomez to drive in a run, Mariners up, 2-0. Then Cano steps up to the bat, hits a soft single to left field, which opened up the gates to hell on earth, also known as some trademark embarrassing fielding that has been plaguing the Astros defense as of late.

It was almost comical, had you not been an Astros fan. Even if you weren’t, the series of mishaps that turned into 3 runs on a single with 2 outs hurt to watch. It hurt fans of baseball to watch, because this kind of stuff you shouldn’t see past a little league field. Cano’s ball bounced out to left, and was scooped up to Rasmus, who overthrew home after 1 runner crossed the plate. Castro saved the ball, but not the second run, and threw it to 1st, after Cano had stepped off 1st.

A rundown was on, with White approaching Cano, around 2/3 of the way down the baseline to 2nd with Altuve covering. Runner takes off at 3rd, and White changes course to get the out at home. This is on 2 outs, and Cano is feet away from being called out. White turns to throw home, trips, and misses his throw. Runner scores, and Cano makes it to 2nd. No outs, 3 runs, and an advanced base on a single. Shakespeare couldn’t write a better comedy of errors that this inning became.

The game painfull ran into another day, the Astros have managed only a single run late, and Feliz and Kratz are being the sacrificial lambs for the bullpen. Yes, Kratz took the mound in the 8th. A least the bullpen won’t be spent again. With a shaky McHugh and Fiers coming up, and the recently announced Chris Devenski 1st shot as a starter coming up this weekend, the bullpen needs the rest. And when team collectively jumped the tracks a few innings back, there’s no reason to add to the wreckage.

That being said, it’s time to hit that panic button. There are 3 games left in April. That’s 1/6 of the season gone by, and the Astros are on a heavy downward spiral that’s spinning out of control. All three components of the game – pitching, fielding, batting, has regressed incrementally with each game played. When the team can manage to eke out a win, they create the illusion that the old Astros are back. We all sit back and say, finally. But then they play the next day, and it’s back to square one.

Those winning games, though, show the Astros at their best. They can hit the ball, feed off each other AB and get on a hitting streak. The field comes alive, with barely a missed throw. Even if the pitching is still a little shaky at times, the bullpen can manage the end. When they’re on, they’re on. They’re the team that shocked the world with a turnaround that nobody expected. The problem is, they’ve not been on that much, and this relatively young team can’t seem to shake it off.

In the (I assume) now 15 losses, the Astros have averaged 3 runs per game, and when they get behind in a game, one can almost chalk it up to a loss. The smallest setbacks defeat the team, and send even vets into panic mode. Granted, the average time in the MLB for this team is just heading into 6 years, and the heart of the line-up boasts a group of up and comers with less than 3 years in the league, so this is rather new ground for the whole of the team. After the post season run, the expectations have shot through the roof.

Young teams feel that, and sometimes crumble under the pressure. Right now, the Astros are falling apart at the seams.

So what will help turn this around? Wins, thus far, haven’t boosted the morale of the team. This year’s team hasn’t managed to push a winning streak past a single game. A shake up in the line-up? Well, at least the starting rotation is poised for a change, with Devenski switching spots with Scott Feldman in the starting rotation, bringing Feldman down to the bullpen to see if Devenski can start a game. With the pitching rotation in the mess it’s in right now, how ever, there are few moves that can be made outside of this.

One factor that must be determined is the Tyler White factor. As much as anyone, this rookie’s been in a slump, with some real blunders at 1st base. He’s missed throws, routine pop-ups, and played an integral part in tonight’s implosion in the 5th. He’s regressed at bat after starting out red-hot. He’ll get his opportunity to play through the slump and the rookie mistakes, but I’m not sure I’d stretch it too far past all-star break if he doesn’t find a groove. The fielding mistakes are excuseable if hits are coming (and if improvement is made), but the hits are going to have to continue to keep coming.

A few more adjustments can be looked into on the roster. There should be some real pressure to prime Gattis to back up Castro behind the plate, and this isn’t going to be as difficult of a transition as people may believe. Gattis played through many games behind home plate with the Braves, as recently as 93 games in 2014. He’s a little rusty, coming off a sports hernia surgery and having not played the position for a year, but he’s not being trained for a new position. Gattis has a higher ceiling of potential than both Castro and Kratz at bat, so there needs to be some movement here.

The leaders on the team need to be leaders, as well. The more experienced players, Rasmus, Altuve, Gomez, have a responsibility to play smarter and lead their teammates out of this collective funk. A little direction on the field goes a long way. Altuve can’t be making the simple base-running errors. He’s too old for that. He’s calmed down tremendously at bat, reading the pitches instead of swinging at everything close to the plate. He  can certainly pace himself on base. The same goes for Gomez and Rasmus – they’ve all made simple mistakes that we shouldn’t expect from veteran players.

These are a few things that key players can do to change the attitude in the game.

Coaching staff and management? That’s another story altogether. I wouldn’t necessarily point all the fingers at Hinch, but he is THE leader in the dugout. Something isn’t clicking and his players are currently out of control. You can see his anger on boneheaded plays that this team shouldn’t be committing with all of their capabilities. You can also assume that Luhnow still has a pretty tight hold on management, too, but that’s another story. Baseline coaching has had some lapses during key plays – not all of these base running blunders fall back on the players.

The team is a big mess, but little adjustments are needed to improve. These mistakes on the field, whether pitching, at bat, or fielding, are not a reflection of the capability of this team. They are actually exceptions to the rule. The season has progressed enough, however, to really worry about these exceptions because they’re starting to become the rule. A few tweaks are essential, but it’s due time to do that tweaking. We can’t afford to wait til the break.

 

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