John P. Lopez – Getting Dusty: Astros clinging to hope and 2022’s magic for better or worse

Apr 21, 2023; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. (12) makes a pitching change against the Atlanta Braves in the fifth inning at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

John P. Lopez – Getting Dusty: Astros clinging to hope and 2022’s magic for better or worse

Short of Dusty Baker getting a face tattoo on a three-day binge in The Seychelles, these up-and-down Astros have all the markings of a title team in the midst of a hangover.

More specifically — for those who never have woken up with a blistering tequila headache and a hankerin’ for menudo and a shot of Pedialyte – the symptoms are all there. At least for now.

Malaise: Nothing says blah like forging into mid-May hovering around .500 and dead-legging your way to the slowest start in seven years.

Fatigue: Generally speaking, these Astros are not playing like the team we’ve come to know. Specifically, key players across the board have had a hard time getting healthy, staying healthy, and zipping around opponents with ease, as we’ve all become accustomed to seeing.

Loss of appetite: Astros manager Dusty Baker is either feeling himself after finally winning a World Series, or he feels nothing. Problems? Questions? Psssh.

Are the Astros as hungry as they were before last season when they finally shut up all the 2017 doubters? Are they as good? Are they as lucky when it comes to health and career-type pitching performances from starters and relievers? All valid questions.

But no matter whether you still believe or if you believe this could be the year things might unravel, don’t expect a lot to change — at least before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

This is Dusty’s way. Dusty’s team. Dusty’s empowerment personified.

He’s loyal, patient, confident, and determined to show that the team that wowed us all just a few months ago will show up again, soon.

For better or worse, this is the squad Baker seems hellbent on riding come hell or high water. Outside of Jose Altuve’s imminent return perhaps waking things up, there are few signs of any significant changes and Baker believes that’s the way it should be.

Sure, the starting pitching staff, outside of Framber Valdez and Christian Javier, who pitched terrifically in Wednesday’s nail-biting (of course) 5-4 win over the Anaheim Angels, is lacking its usual depth. Relying on Brandon Bielak, rookie J.P. France, and Hunter Brown, there aren’t proven answers behind the front-line starters. Lance McCullers Jr. might return soon, but then again how often have the Astros been able to rely on McCullers staying healthy?

And while it’s not Altuve’s fault he started the year with hand injury that put him on the shelf, and he seems ahead of schedule for a return, the same is not true elsewhere. Alex Bregman might have the occasional slow start, but he’s in an extended funk, batting .213. Postseason hero Jeremy Peña is plodding along at .239 and the generally light-hitting Martín Maldonado has gone ultra-light at .175.

“Overall we’re not doing enough offensively right now,” Bregman said this week. “We need to do a better job of swinging at better pitches and damaging pitches over the middle of the plate. I know how good of an offense we have.”

Then there’s 36-year-old Michael Brantley, who general manager Dana Brown predicted would be back from off-season shoulder surgery around Opening Day. Brantley experienced a setback after a Sugar Land rehab stint and was sent home from Anaheim for more testing. Brantley, 36, hasn’t swung a bat in a Major League game in nearly 11 months.

On the hill, Luis Garcia is done for the year with an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery and Jose Urquidy has been put on the shelf with a shoulder issue, while reliable 2022 relievers Ryne Stanek (5.56 ERA) and Rafael Montero (6.14 ERA) have been huge disappointments.

Baker seems unfazed. It’ll all work out. Just wait.

Staunchly devoted to the formula and lineups that carried the Astros all the way last November, Baker often shrugs and quips at the mere question of any trouble brewing.

Since 2016 when the Astros last missed the post-season, the Astros on Memorial Day (outside the Covid year of 2020) have posted records of 36-16, 35-20, 29-24 and 31-18. Today, they are on pace to hover just over .500 and nowhere near their usual pace. Meanwhile, the division-leading Rangers seem legit, the Angels are hovering, and the Mariners lurk. This isn’t the same-old, easy AL West path the Astros have known.

Baker hardly flinches.

He has stuck with players and lineups that beg to be tweaked if not overhauled. Kyle Tucker has earned little protection batting fifth, with questionable off-season addition Jose Abreu in front of him and Peña behind him. Maldonado, a Baker personal favorite, not only has regressed horribly at the plate, but has been outplayed defensively by little-used Yainer Diaz. Baker did fiddle with things in Wednesday afternoon’s getaway game, with Tucker batting behind Alvarez and turning to someone other than the struggling Montero in a high-leverage, late-inning situation. It’s to be determined if he sticks with some changes, but don’t count on it.

With a recent World Series title under his belt, Baker has been empowered when questioned about the uneven start. Just Wednesday after Brantley was surprisingly sent home, Baker said he didn’t know where exactly Brantley went, refused to allow athletic trainers to address the issue, and added, “We don’t want to rush him. The timetable doesn’t always match your body table. We’ll have to wait until he’s better.”

He is cool, confident, and unfettered, even if many Astros fans are less than giddy. He is emboldened and confident.

By any gauge, the Astros have a long way to go to become the team that had Houston dancing in the streets last November. By any standard, this is a team that’s hurting and struggling in key places.

No problem. In Dusty we trust? It seems that’s the only option at this point.

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