The Astros were playing only a few hours south of where they faced off against the A's in the American League Division Series, but the feel was quite different. After averaging three home runs and eight runs per game during the ALDS, they moved on to San Diego's Petco Park to face the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS. The Rays took five games to dispatch the Yankees in their series, and it became clear on Sunday night that the Astros took a step up in weight class against the Rays.
Despite an early home run from Jose Altuve and out-hitting the Rays 9-6, the Astros just could not muster any runs beyond the one long ball. Tampa, who burned through a lot of arms in the series with the Yankees, got five innings out of Blake Snell with just the one run and held it together with solid defense and finally the Rays closer Diego Castillo going five outs for the save and the win 2-1.
Here are our thoughts.
This could be a pitcher's and fielder's series.
In addition to the success of the Rays' staff, Astros pitching remained in fine form as well. Framber Valdez, the somewhat surprising from the outside but completely deserving choice for game one starter, was outstanding giving up two runs and striking out eight in six innings of work. And the bullpen continued to eat up scoreless innings. Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes and Brooks Raley gave up only two hits, one walk and no runs in two innings of work while striking out five. Tampa remains the favorite on their pitching alone, but their defense, like the Astros, is stingy. This is a series that will likely be decided by a handful of key plays.
Speaking of key plays, Yuli Gurriel's double play in the eighth was a killer.
Gurriel, who surprisingly signed a contract extension a couple weeks ago, has struggled in the playoffs and that is being polite. He has only one hit in six games and is hitting (if you can call it that) 0.87. Particularly disturbing is the fact that Gurriel has, for years, been a reliable clutch hitter. Not this year and it was never more evident then when he came to the plate in the eighth inning with the bases loaded. On the first pitch, he bounced a grounder up the middle that was easily turned into a double play to end the Astros would-be rally.
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Strike zones continue to be a huge question mark and shouldn't be.
As technology gets better and more available to fans, it is becoming inexcusable for Major League Baseball to ignore some of the real issues with how umpires call balls and strikes. On numerous occasions Sunday night, home plate ump Manny Gonzales called pitches strikes that were clearly out of the zone and other balls that caught plenty of the plate. Given how obvious it is with not only the TV monitor showing the pitch locations but even more sophisticated tools online, MLB is going to need to re-think its approach because they look absolutely stupid. Neither team seemed to be the greater beneficiary, but that doesn't make those calls any less ridiculous.
Going old school in Houston sports.
Sunday marked one rather unique moment in Houston sports: Both pro teams playing had coaches over the age of 70. Dusty Baker is 71 and Romeo Crennel, who took over the coaching duties for the Texans after the firing of Bill O'Brien this week, is 73. In fact, Crennel became the oldest coach in NFL history and got a win in the process. It's also worth noting that both coaches are African American. Even though only one got a win (and is handling a 1-4 team at the moment), the pair of septuagenarians seem to be doing just fine, age be damned.