Houston had been the hottest team in baseball until cooling off a bit last week. The Astros still have a very comfortable lead in the AL West, so if the defending division champion Rangers are going to make a move on their cross-state rivals, now would be a good time to start. More after the jump.
Houston enters this series having split four with the Royals in KC and then losing two of three to the Angels at home. Before that, the Astros had won ten straight, including sweeping three from the Rangers in Arlington. The Rangers also had a 10 game winning streak, but that was followed by a 4-12 slide before sweeping the Nats in Washington on the first leg of a two city road trip that finishes here in Houston.
Game 1 pitted Rangers ace Yu Darvish against second year man Joe Musgrove for Houston. Darvish was on his game this night, holding the Astros to a single run in 7 innings of one-hit ball. Texas got to Musgrove for a pair of runs in the 2nd inning but broke the game open in the 8th with a three run blast by Nomar Mazara. Final score: Rangers 6, Astros 1
This was Darvish’s fourth start of 7+ IP allowing only one hit; all of them have come against Houston. The Rangers’ second inning two-spot came courtesy of back-to-back two out triples by Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo; the last time two Rangers had consecutive triples in the same inning was eleven years ago against the Angels’ Jered Weaver, the only triples Weaver allowed in his 123 IP rookie season.
Mazara’s home run was his eighth of the season, keeping him within reach of 20 for the second straight season; if he and teammate Odor both reach that plateau, it will be the first time a Ranger team has had two players aged 23 or younger, each with a pair of 20 home run seasons under his belt. Quiz: which team would the Rangers join as the only clubs with two such players?
With three of Houston’s primary starters on the DL, swingman Brad Peacock drew into the rotation for the start in Game 2 against Nick Martinez for the Rangers. Houston took the early lead with solo home runs in the 1st and 4th innings, but the Rangers answered with singleton runs of their own in the 5th and 7th frames. Astro setup man Luke Gregerson got the call for the 8th inning and retired his first two batters before giving up a single to Ranger catcher Jonathon Lucroy. Next up was lefty batter Rougned Odor whose home run had tied the game the inning before. Gregerson stayed in the game and Odor went yard again to give Texas their winning margin. Final score: Rangers 4, Astros 2
The Rangers are repeating their comeback heroics of recent years, with their 16th come-from-behind win this season, and 6th when trailing after 6 innings. Part of that success is due to their late inning power surge, with more than 35% of their home runs hit in innings 7-9, the most in the AL. Odor’s two late inning homers yielded a 0.656 WPA, the best of his career; it was his first multi-HR game since opening day, after three 2-HR games last year, all between Jun 15 and Aug 31.
Astro manager A.J. Hinch rolled the dice, and lost, by staying with Gregerson to face Odor. In Hinch’s defense, Houston has only one southpaw reliever (Tony Sipp, who pitched an inning in game 1) and the game was only tied, so it’s not too hard to see why he would want to stick with Gregerson in that spot, with two out and only a man on first. Before this season, Gregerson had been the epitome of reliability, with eight seasons of 55+ IP and an ERA never higher than 3.28; but, it’s been a different story this year with an ERA more than two runs higher than his career mark, due mainly to 2.1 HR/9 (next worst is 0.9) and 3.5 BB/9, almost one full walk more than his career rate and his worst mark since his rookie season.
George Springer led off the home first inning with a home run, the 7th time this season that he has homered in the first inning from the leadoff spot. With 16 leadoff home runs for his career, Springer ranks second in Astro franchise history, albeit a distant second behind Craig Biggio with 53 leadoff jacks.
Eyeing a sweep, the Rangers started free agent acquisition Andrew Cashner in Game 3 against another fill-in starter for the Astros, rookie Francis Martes, making his first major league start after debuting with 3.2 relief innings in Houston’s previous series with the Angels. The Halos got to Martes for four runs, but he was solid this night, allowing just one run on three hits over 5 innings to collect his first W. Houston nibbled away at Cashner, with singleton runs in the 1st and 2nd innings and a pair in the 5th, extending the Ranger right-hander to 95 pitches over 4+ innings of work. Jeremy Jeffress relieved Cashner in the 5th after the first three Astros reached, and put out the fire by retiring his first three batters, keeping Texas in the game at 4-1 down after 5 innings. But, that reprieve would be short-lived as Jeffress had no answers in the 6th, giving up back-to-back jacks starting the inning, the first two of eight straight Astro batters who would reach base. When the carnage was over, thirteen Astros had batted, including three with a pair of hits, as Houston scored 9 runs in the inning to put the game away. Final score: Astros 13, Rangers 2
In his first tour of the AL, Cashner has seen his SO/9 plummet. Part of that is not getting to fan his opposite number, but opposing pitchers accounted for only 13% of Cashner’s strikeouts before this season, so that doesn’t explain a strikeout rate that has been cut almost in half. Looking at his pitch selection shows a fairly dramatic decline in his use of the fastball at only 57.5% this year compared to 65.2% a year ago, and 66.5% for his career before this season. Instead, Cashner has gone to his changeup and an even slower curveball 24.1% of the time, compared to 12.0% last year and 15.3% for his career before this season. Whatever the reason for that change, it has so far failed to befuddle AL hitters who are making contact on 85.6% of their swings (up 4% from 2016, and 6% from 2008-16 average) and offering at only 42.3% of Cashner’s pitches (down 1.4% from 2016, and 3.6% from 2008-16 average). That has translated into swings and misses amounting to just 10.1% of Cashner’s strikes this year, compared to 12.9% last year and 14.5% for his career before this season. Thanks to FanGraphs for the pitch type and batter result data.
Before this game Cashner was sporting a 0.97 SO/BB ratio; 2007 (Steve Trachsel) was the last season with a SO/BB ratio below one and 125 IP, 2004 (Kirk Rueter) was the last qualified season, and 1990 was the last such 100 IP season by a Ranger (Charlie Hough with 218.2 IP).
This was Houston’s second time this season scoring 9 or more runs in an inning, matching their total of such games over the 13 prior seasons. The last time the Astros twice scored 9+ runs in an inning was way back in 1974 when those two innings accounted for 2.9% of their total runs for the season. Strictly a footnote to this contest, but Joey Gallo belted home run no. 18, a 459 foot solo shot, to go with a walk and a strikeout for a 3 for 4 TTO game, upping his season TTO% to 56.1% of PAs.