Astros Sweep Angels to Regain First Place
After losing six straight games prior to the All-Star break, the Astros surprising reign of 84 straight days on top of the AL Western Division came to an end. The offense disappeared during the losing stretch but it reappeared after the break and the team kept pace with the Angels for the next nine days before a three game series with the Angels in Houston beginning July 28. The Astros played some of their best baseball of the season and swept the three games to take a two-game lead in the Division.
The month of July was full of ups and downs for the Astros. It started badly on July 1 when George Springer suffered a broken wrist when hit by a pitch that will probably put him out of action for 2 months. The club then lost eight of the next ten games but recovered with a five game winning streak later in the month including a three game sweep of the Boston Red Sox. Overall the team was 12-12 in July, the first month this season that they did not have a winning record. The four game lead over the Angels at the end of June was reduced to two games at the end of July.
The team has continued to play well in most facets of the game with good defense, timely hitting and consistent pitching. They have scored an average of 4.42 runs per game while allowing 3.69. They continue to lead the major leagues in home runs (143) and are third in stolen bases with 74, an unlikely combination. However, they continue to rank near the bottom in batting average and on-base percentage and are second to the Chicago Cubs in striking out and are on pace to break their major league record of 1535 set in 2013.
The starting pitching received a shot in the arm with the trade for Scott Kazmir and the strong performances of rookies Lance McCullers and Vince Velasquez, promoted from Class AA Corpus Christi. Kazmir made two starts in July and has yet to allow a run in 14 innings. The Astros won four of the seven games started by McCullers and Velasquez in July. The Astros also acquired pitcher, Mike Fiers, from Milwaukee in a trade, and he is expected to join the rotation in early August.
The relief pitching, a season long strength, faltered somewhat In July, converting only three saves in nine opportunities. The Astros were rumored to be actively seeking a trade for a top closer prior to the non-waiver trade deadline but were unsuccessful. Overall, the Astro bullpen ranks third in the majors with an ERA of 2.72.
The leading hitter for the Astros in July was utility player, Marwin Gonzalez, batting .364 with a slugging average of .582. Jose Altuve and rookies Preston Tucker and Carlos Correa also batted over .300 for the month. Tucker and Correa each hit six home runs to lead the club in July. Altuve stole six bases to retain the league lead in that category. Outfielder/rapper, Carlos Gomez, highly sought by a number of clubs, was obtained from Milwaukee in a deadline trade and will probably start in center field.
The minor league system continues to be very productive. The teams are doing well and have provided several players to the Astros that have been instrumental in the team’s success (Correa, Tucker, McCullers, and Velasquez). The system also provided six prospects that were used in the trades for Kazmir, Fiers and Gomez.
General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, still receives criticism for releasing J. D. Martinez last year but it is hard to find fault with his work this year. His selection of A.J. Hinch as manager was unpopular at the time but it appears that Hinch was the right man for the job and he has set the right tone. The off-season acquisitions, Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Hank Conger, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Will Harris have helped and the timely promotion of minor league prospects has been very successful.
It’s too early to evaluate the deadline trades. For now, they look promising but they could backfire because the Astros gave up six top prospects in the deals.