Apr 1, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker Jr. (12) watch his team play against the Chicago White Sox in the fourth inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
On the topic of the uncharacteristically slow start by the Astros, I think back to my youth, or something approaching my youth, when I covered the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise notorious for two things: (1) starting slow and (2) finishing very fast.
Take for instance 1979 when the O’s were 3-8 out of the gate, then went on a 91-38 tear. The Orioles would lose Game 7 of the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates that year after winning three of the first four.
A year or two later, when manager Earl Weaver got into it with umpire Bill Haller—it’s all on YouTube—the chain-smoking, profane, and brilliant skipper blurted out that he’d be going to the Hall of Fame in a few years. As to what point Earl was making, that was never clear.
“You’re going to the Hall of Fame?” Haller asked.
“Yeah,” Earl screamed.
“For what? Screwing up the World Series?” Haller shot back.
Weaver was not a fan of questions about slow starts, and the Orioles had so many of them that he had stock replies.
“What’s a start?” he’d ask.
“Geez, Earl, I dunno.”
But the best answer came from outfielder John Lowenstein, who had a deep reservoir of knowledge on such things.
“I never even look at the standings until August,” he told me once.
And then, I asked, you look at ‘em.
“Heck no,” he said. “By then, it’s too late.”
That’s how it is with these Astros, who’ve lost four of their first six, their worst (harrumph) start since 2019.
They were 2-5 that year before a 10-game winning streak got things back on track in a season in which they won a franchise-record 107 games but ended with a loss in Game 7 of the World Series.
If you are looking for areas of long-term concern, it would be in areas of attitude, complacency, things of that sort.
When you’ve won as much as the Astros have won, when you’re standing around and watching championship banners unfurled and World Series rings handed out, it’s human nature to feel as if you’ve been to the mountaintop.
It’s one thing to say that they’re driven to go back-to-back, but that’s a difficult thing to put into practice, especially in fighting through the adversity that’s part of a nine-month grind.
That’s why things like running into outs on the bases ought to be a concern, and Alex Bregman and Corey Julks were both guilty of that during a 6-3 loss to the Tigers on Tuesday. Added to those mistakes were two wild pitches, a passed ball, and a pair of misplayed ground balls.
On the other hand, teams that aren’t hitting look lifeless, and mistakes like those are magnified because the margin for error is so small. The Astros’ .651 OPS is 22nd in the majors.
Here’s the number that jumps out: their .309 slugging percentage is the fourth-lowest in the majors, lower than all but the Mets, Royals, and Tigers. The Astros have 48 hits, 41 of them singles.
We knew the Astros might be offensively challenged when they were forced to open the season without Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley.
Because Dusty Baker must manage Yordan Alvarez’s rest, there’ll be days when the lineup is without its projected Nos. 1, 2, and 3.
Those absences are exacerbated by the lack of production from right-handed hitters, who’ve yet to homer. Once José Abreu, Jeremy Peña, and Bregman get going, the pitchers won’t feel the pressure to be perfect. That may be why the rotation has a 4.40 ERA, 15th-best in the majors.
Astros starters had a dazzling 2.95 ERA last season, second-best in the majors. But Justin Verlander is gone for good, and Lance McCullers Jr. is sidelined indefinitely. Can Jose Urquidy and Hunter Brown fill those gaps? Stay tuned.
Replacing Verlander and McCullers is one challenge. Replacing Altuve and Brantley is another. At this point, the Astros surely would be happy to have the band back together by the Fourth of July. Until then, their challenge is to weather the slumps, and hope today is the breakout day. We’re all fairly certain that day is coming.
“I definitely believe we will play way better baseball moving forward,” Bregman said Tuesday.
Dusty Baker offered this perspective: “Right now, not much is going good for us. If you have a miscue, they capitalize on it.”