HOUSTON - Where are the bats? Houston wants to know.
After the Houston Astros' 7-0 loss to the New York Yankees on Saturday night, fans are left wondering what happened to the offense that lit up the Major Leagues throughout the 2019 season. They managed only three hits for the night. It must be a slump, many say, and it's unforgivable. Why can't they just snap out of it?
But perhaps we need to take a moment to acknowledge the caliber of postseason pitching the team has faced. The Astros have played six games in the postseason, all of them against some of the best pitching in the MLB. That's not to say the hitting couldn't be improved. But remember that they played five tough games against the Tampa Bay Rays, the team with the best ERA in the American League during the regular season, and six innings against Yankee starter Masahiro Tanaka, who now has a lifetime postseason ERA of 1.32.
Psychologically, for Houston fans, myself included, it's a tough adjustment. The Astros finished the regular season winning 12 of their final 14 games. During that stretch, opposing pitching had a 5.64 combined ERA. By contrast, there were only five innings during the entire Tampa Bay series in which the Astros scored more than one run.
At first glance, one wants to place blame strictly with a few of the bats. The statistics do look pretty awful. George Springer, 3-for-25. Michael Brantley, 5-for-23. Carlos Correa, 3-for-22. But the only sample size we have so far is the Tampa Bay series and one game against the Yankees. Immediately before that, the Astros were playing no one but teams under .500.
This is not to diminish the accomplishment of their record, but it is a wake-up call that hitters will not necessarily face the kind of pitchers that give up easy home runs and multirun innings when the playoffs come around. Houstonians should view what has happened in the postseason thus far as a welcome test, not necessarily a cause for despair.
Yes, Tanaka was brilliant Saturday night. His location and spin were impeccable and allowed only one hit over six innings. And unfortunately, Zach Greinke had a couple of bad innings. I've heard a lot of Greinke hatred recently, and yes, a shutout would have been nice. But allowing only three runs in six innings against a Yankees lineup that led the league in runs scored is no small feat.
But Sunday night might be a chance to break the mold of that small sample size. It’ll be interesting to see how the Astros respond in Game 2 against Yankees starter James Paxton, who has played only one postseason game in his career -- Game 1 this postseason against the Twins -- and gave up three earned runs, including two homers, in 4 2/3 innings.
This could be a prime opportunity for Springer, Brantley and Correa to rewrite their postseason scripts and help the Astros build momentum before heading to Yankee Stadium for Games 3, 4 and, hopefully, 5. It helps that Correa is .409 lifetime against Paxton, while Brantley is .333. As a team, the Astros have a .425 slugging percentage against Paxton and an OPS of .729.
And of course, getting some early runs would give some much-needed support to Justin Verlander, who will look to contain a Yankees lineup that hasn’t yet lost in the postseason and scored 30 runs in four games.
If Verlander brings the form he displayed in Game 1 against the Rays, and if the bats can take advantage of Paxton early, the Astros could flip the script on this series (and the entire Astros postseason) very quickly.
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