Houston Astros: Silver (re)Boot Series

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With a series win, and a rough northeast road trip behind them, the Astros come home to face their division rivals, the Arlington South Oklahoma Texas Rangers. No, wait; I’m changing that back to Arlington Rangers. This will be the 2nd of 6 series against the in-state rivals, as well as the Silver Boot Series (the Silver Boot Series, again, being the seasonal trophy for the club that has the most wins vs the other). This series is a matter of pride, with the 1st being in Arlington and ending with an unceremonious sweep by the Rangers. it is also a test to see if the Astros are indeed coming back to the game.

After a terrible series in Boston, one of which the Astros should have come out 3-1 but instead came out 1-3, a roster shake-up was implemented. Erik Kratz was no more, being replaced by Evan Gattis, Tony Kemp was called up, Carlos Gomez was placed on 15 day DL (which could be the first step to sealing his fate for the team, or a much-needed break to get back on track), and then Colin Moran was called up from the MiLB in the final step of the shake-up. This caused a much-needed and highly anticipated boost in the line-up, with the Astros clinching a series win vs the slipping Chicago White Sox in game 2.

Both Kemp and Moran got their MLB debuts in the series – Kemp with a pinch running spot in game one, and both being inserted in the line up, at left field and 3rd base, respectively, in game 2. Both showed a certain spark that led to their call-ups. Kemp, in his first game in the line up, went 2/3 at bat, with a double, a single, a run, and a walked base. Moran was slightly less impressive, with a strikeout, a line out (albeit a solid hit), and a walked base. Both showed an aggressive and energetic defense on the field, which shows a lot of promise in the coming weeks.

This was the series of the rookie. Not only did the 2 newcomers put on a worthy performance, but Tyler White made a comeback at bat, putting in his 1st game of the year with multiple home runs in game 1 of the series. Coming in with a noteworthy mention would be Evan Gattis – not a rookie by any means. However, in his first appearance back from the fast-track to catching minors designation, Gattis came out and hit a 2 run home run in extra innings to clinch the 1st win for the Astros. In between the double sock road series, the Astros pulled out a punch.

This was a much-needed road series win for the Astros, the 1st road series won all season, but I would caution those who want to turn that series win into a testament that the Astros are back. The signs are promising, but the conditions were ripe for picking. The Chicago White Sox entered this series on a skid. They were coming in 2-4 in their last 6 games, with 2 consecutive series losses and a 2 game losing streak. Not that the Astros were coming in great, but this recent slide put the Astros in a relatively good position to pull off a few wins on the road.

And boy are we glad they did.

The series win on the road gives the Astros a decent boost coming home to face the Rangers, who are coming out of a series loss and sweep against the Oakland Athletics. That series sweep not only cost the Rangers a possible bump to 1st place in the AL West, but it’s putting their 2nd place seat in danger. Both teams will be hungry for wins. The Rangers will fight to advance to the top spot in the division, while the Astros will fight for another series win at home, and a hopeful jump out of last place in the division. The Astros are also confronting their on-field demons, so to speak.

Since their ascention to the top spot in the division in 2015, and the eventual take-over by the Rangers, the Astros have had some bitter stuggles against the division and in-state rival. They had an embarrassing sweep against the Rangers in Minute Maid Park around this time last year, that kicked off that stigma of facing their rival down the line. The season was marked with 3 series wins for the Astros, and 3 series sweeps by the Rangers, for a final record of 6-13 against the Rangers – their worst record against a division opponent.

This season, the Astros are 0-3 against the Rangers with that 1st series sweep. That series showed 2 teams struggling against each other, with neither playing their best on the field. That series, for the Astros, also marked the beginning of the decline for ace pitcher Dallas Keuchel. Yes, guys, the Rangers are responsible for breaking out star pitcher; get mad. Keuchel, who had a terrible outing in the final game of the earlier series, had 13 hits, 6 earned runs, and the 1st home run in 2016 against him. Keuchel will get his chance to come back from that loss in game 3 of this upcoming series, on Sunday.

This series will, in my opinion, tell the tale of how the Astros will fare the rest of the season. They are facing their mentally toughest opponent, at home, and in the middle of a turnaround month where they currently have a winning record. This series gives the Astros the chance to finally confront their in-state and division demons, and finally get the notion of playing the Rangers out of their heads. With a new injection of energy on the roster and a victorious battle for a series win against a 1st place team in the AL, the Astros could not be more ready. The question is, will they step up?

Noteworthy for this particular series is that it looks like Rougned Odor, who is appealing an 8 game suspension after punching Bautista in the face earlier in the week, will be on the roster for a few, if not all 3 games in this series. The hope that Odor would start serving his suspension prior to this series was pretty good news for the Astros, as Odor has been a force on the Rangers squad, with 28 runs, 7 home runs, 21 RBIs and a .275 BA this season so far. Granted, the Astros own superstar at 2nd base, Jose Altuve, smokes him in every way possible (except throwing punches), but losing him would hurt the Rangers.

It doesn’t look like it will play out that way, however, and the Astros will be facing the full force of the Rangers.

The key to this game for the Astros will be productivity at bat (and subsequently, pitching). Both teams have very similar runs per game and runs allowed per game stats, with the Rangers having the slight edge over the Astros with 4.54/4.24 runs per game, and 4.56/4.81 runs allowed per game, respectively. The Astros have started swinging more consistently over the past week, but stranding runners is still a big problem with the team. There are some tweaks that can happen in the line-up to produce a few more runs, which we’ll probably see in the coming days.

Starting rotation needs to remain steady. McCullers will have his 2nd game of the year starting tonight (under much better weather conditions) and needs to take more command on the strike zone. Fiers, starting in game 2, needs to continue his trend of improvement, now that he’s got the starting job over rookie Chris Devenski (who was dropped to the bullpen yesterday). Keuchel needs to just come back. He looked good in his start against the White Sox in the first win, but couldn’t make it through 7 innings after losing command over the lower outside strike zone.

Bullpen needs to keep the consistency solid. Gregerson needs to start splitting time as closer with Harris, even if it’s just an inning split, if there are any 1 run games. The bullpen needs to be managed more efficiently in this series, especially with Devenksi coming back in the fold. There should be no excuse to lose any tight games moving forward. If Gregerson isn’t having a good outing, then Gregerson needs to be pulled. No excuses, no chances. If the bullpen is managed a little smarter and a little more competitively, there should be no reason for a series loss at home.

Finally, the Astros need to remove the stigma of playing the Rangers from their head. The team needs to get out and enjoy the game, which makes it more enjoyable for all of us. Forget the past, forget the bad April start, and forget the last series sweep against the Rangers in South Oklahoma. Yep, it’s South Oklahoma again. Get out in front of a packed Minute Maid Park and put on a performance worthy of the Friday night fireworks. Let the Rangers know they have a worthy opponent. Most of all, let’s work on a series win and even a 1st series sweep of the seaon in the Astros favor. Let’s play ball.

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