The defense of a World Series crown is new territory for Houston fans and, more importantly, Houston baseball players. However, if the first weekend of the 2018 season is any indication, the Houston Astros seem to be picking up right where they left off when Jose Altuve gobbled a ground ball and flipped it over to Yuli Gurrielto close out the 2017 World Series in Los Angeles last November.
Practically five months to the day after the team paraded through downtown Houston, the 2018 Houston Astros went up to Arlington, and, with a few new toys available to manager A.J. Hinch, were largely rude houseguests toward the woebegone Texas Rangers (Friday's 5-1 loss being the glaring exception where the Astros were far too kind and courteous to their hosts).
It's just four games in a 162 game season, but we did learn dome things this weekend about our world champions. Let's re-live some of the magic....
4. Houston Astro fans will travel
Holy cow, I was in Arlington Thursday and Friday, and let's just say that if this past weekend is any indicator, the Astros are going to have some road followings, at least to Arlington, this season on par with the Texan fans, who have the most organized traveling party of all the teams in this town. The place was flooded with Astros fans, and in my driving around Houston on Sunday, listening to the Astros' radio broadcast, when I turned it on in the middle of a play like I did a couple times with the crowd was going crazy, you'd have thought the Rangers just scored. Nope. Those were Astro fans making "home crowd" noise in Arlington. Remember a few years ago, when the Rangers were like 15-4 against the Astros during the regular season? Yeah, worth forgetting now. Those days are gone.
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3. Backup catcher may not be a black hole in the lineup
The one game I attended in person in Arlington was Friday night's game, the 5-1 loss. That was just one of those nights where you felt like the Astros were paddling upstream. Dallas Keuchel was a little bit off, the team was making decent contact at the plate, but they were just off an inch, here or there. In games like that, the bottom of the order can feel like a giant boat anchor. On that night, backup catcher Max Stassi was batting ninth. Credit Stassi for being one Astro who made things happen, with a double on Friday, and then two more hits on Sunday. It's just a couple of games, but the team has reportedly been enthusiastic about adjustments Stassi has made to his swing, and that showed this weekend in some quality contact. A backup catcher who can hit a little bit, and allow Evan Gattis to primarily DH, would be a nice luxury.
2. Gerrit Cole is going to fit in just fine
A few games in, it looks like this starting rotation is going to be absolutely fierce. If I'm an American League team with contention aspirations, Sunday was a bad day. On his first day on the regular season job as an Astro, Gerrit Cole appeared to be the Gerrit Cole of 2015, when he won 19 games and was a National League All Star. On Sunday, Cole struck out 11 Rangers in seven innings, on his way to his first win as an Astro. It MUST be pointed out that, under pitching coach Brent Strom's supervision, Astro pitchers have regularly improved upon whatever they were before they got here. That can't be a coincidence. Keuchel, Morton, even Verlander late last season, they all have improved or reverted to peak-level performance on Strom's watch. Verlander himself acknowledged the tools and coaching he received as an Astro as a reason why he was once again Cy Young level Verlander last postseason. I don't think it's a reach to assume that, fully healthy, Cole should experience a similar bump back. Sunday was a great start.
1. This Altuve guy.... not sure what else to say.
In his first four games after signing a $151 million contract extension, Jose Altuve went 9 for 16, for a .563 batting average. Carlos Correa is right behind him with a .438 average and a 1.313 OPS. If you're the rest of baseball, here's the scary thing about this weekend (other than Gerrit Cole looking like an ace again) — the Astros scored 22 runs and there was not a ton of home run power from the usual suspects behind those 22 runs. Springer led off the season with a solo shot, and Correa had a two run blast on Saturday. Aside from that, it was two home runs from Jake Marisnick. The Astros scored 22 runs in four games with Springer, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick, and Marwin Gonzalez batting .200 or below. This offense is going to plunder so many teams.
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