Apr 10, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker (12) in the dugout before the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
John McClain: Astros use 2022 formula to win last game of Minnesota series, must get on a roll against Pirates
The last time the Astros started 4-6 or worse was 2016 – the last season in which they missed the playoffs – but there are signs of encouragement.
The Astros’ 5-1 victory at Minnesota on Sunday was the first time they used the formula that helped them finish 106-56 last season and blow through the playoffs 11-2, including beating the Phillies in six games to win their second World Series.
To avoid getting swept by the Twins, the Astros received great pitching from starter Hunter Brown, outstanding relief from Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly, and timing hitting, especially by Chas McCormick in the leadoff spot. Now they have to keep it up in their three-game series at Pittsburgh, where they haven’t played since 2016.
In their last game at Target Field, Brown pitched seven innings, allowing two hits, one run, striking out seven, and walking two. Abreu, who was exceptional over the second half of last season and especially in the playoffs, had three strikeouts in one inning of relief. Pressly worked a perfect ninth.
That kind of exceptional pitching ignited the Astros to a fourth World Series and their first title since 2017 – not to mention their first without a blemish on their championship trophy.
In the last two games of the Minnesota series, including Saturday’s extra-inning loss, Dusty Baker dropped Jeremy Peña from the leadoff spot to sixth in the order. Peña responded with three hits and three runs batted in, elevating his average from .171 to .209.
McCormick replaced Peña leading off the order in the last two games against the Twins. He had three hits, including a home run and four RBIs on Sunday. In his two games batting sixth, Peña had three hits, a home run, and three RBIs. He seemed much more comfortable batting sixth, including not chasing as many pitches outside the strike zone.
Now, two games is a small sample size, but Baker likes what he’s seen because McCormick and Pena were back in the same spots in the order for the first game against the Pirates.
The Astros, who started 6-4 in 2022 and were 7-9 before they got it together, have issues and pleasant surprises early in the season. They went through the rotation twice with Brown and Cristian Javier the only starters with victories. The bullpen – the best in baseball last season when it was unhittable in the playoffs – got off to a shaky start before Abreu and Pressly looked terrific on Sunday.
Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have supplied power with three home runs each. They combined for 22 RBIs, including 14 by Alvarez, through the Minnesota series. Mauricio Dubón and Corey Julks were hitting .304 each.
Now the bad part. Alex Bregman is off to an awful start, going 6-for-40 at the plate with no extra-base hits and one RBI.
New first baseman Jose Abreu is the first Astro to begin a season with a 10-game hitting streak, but only one was for extra bases, a double, with no homers and three RBIs. They need Abreu to provide some power and drive in more runs.
There was good news over the weekend. General manager Dana Brown said Michael Brantley, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery last season, is expected to return in early May.
The Astros are missing more pieces to their championship lineup. Jose Altuve won’t be able to play until June after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured thumb. There’s still no timetable for Lance McCullers Jr. to make his 2023 debut. When he’s able to return from an elbow injury, he’ll give Baker a six-man rotation, assuming the manager doesn’t have to deal with other injuries.
The Astros are trying to reach a seventh consecutive American League Championship Series and a fifth World Series. They’re trying to become the first team since the 2000 Yankees to repeat as champions. Injuries will play a substantial role, of course.
As for now, the Astros need to get on a roll. They need to leave Pittsburgh with at least two victories, allowing them to win their first series of the season. When they return home against Texas and Toronto, the Astros need to be pointed in the right direction as they continue their quest to win a third World Series in seven years.
(John McClain writes four columns a week for GallerySports.com. He can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).