Despite the overwhelming amount of fun these last few weeks have been, I can’t fault anyone for feeling a little uneasy heading into tonight’s game. Today represented the start of a long stretch against some tough teams - even after this series wraps up tomorrow, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Angels still loom in the distance. In years past, plenty of chances to sustain momentum when it counted got snuffed out almost immediately (think D*****r W*****d), and the Astros have owned our soul the last couple years.
Thankfully, this year isn’t like the others.
The M’s got to Dallas Keuchel immediately, with Dee Gordon and Jean Segura both checking in with base hits. A Mitch Haniger groundout brought Dee home, Nelson Cruz legged out an infield hit (!), and Kyle Seager strode to the plate with just one out and two on. With the count at 1-0, Keuchel threw a fastball just off the outside corner, and Kyle didn’t miss it:
The Crawford Boxes have been the subject of ire for years now. Tal’s Hill - with a flagpole in play to boot! - had it beat in sheer ridiculousness, but how many pop-ups have we seen the Astros hit to left field that snuck juuuust over that yellow line? Remember poor Chase de Jong’s debut last year? It was so nice to see Minute Maid’s “quirk” work out in the M’s favor for once. After just twelve pitches from Keuchel, they had James Paxton staked out to a 4-0 lead, and the Big Maple responded by throwing a clean bottom of the first, hitting 97 right out of the gate.
I just... wow. That swing was almost all arms - the back foot turn is nearly imperceptible - and generated a 110 MPH exit velocity, with the ball clanking off one of the back windows of the stadium. Add in a walk later in the game, and Zunino’s wRC+ after today sits at 98, solidly above-average for a catcher. It’s almost like he’s good!
Paxton did run into a little trouble in the second, needing thirty pitches to get through the frame. Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel both greeted him with base hits, and the fearsome Evan Gattis was next. On a 2-2 fastball, he swung hard, lofted a ball to left field, and...
Paxton would allow a run to score on a double from Marwin González, perpetual Mariner killer, but beared down to strike out Max Stassi and Jake Marisnick, hitting 99 on his final pitch of the inning. Although he allowed nine hits, James was able to work out of multiple jams thanks to three double plays and this sparkling catch from Guillermo Heredia:
In all, Pax put together 7.2 very strong innings, battling the most wayward of strike zones without his sharpest command. Although he mostly shelved his cutter - I counted just ten over 108 pitches - his fastball being up a notch and a generous sprinkling of his curve kept the Astros off balance almost all night. Paxton’s curveball usage has spiked significantly since his first seven starts, sitting right at 25% tonight, and it effectively generated whiffs and soft contact when he needed them most.
While Keuchel worked into the seventh inning, he didn’t get there without allowing a third dinger, this one off the bat of Jean Segura:
The seven earned runs charged to Keuchel were the most he’s coughed up since last August, and the utter dominance he’s shown against Seattle throughout his career makes it even more special. Juan Nicasio and Chasen Bradford shut down the Astros for the last four outs, and the leisurely stroll to a win was complete.
After what’s felt like an endless stream of one-run, walk-off nailbiters, it was a nice change of pace to never feel in doubt tonight. Dingers, solid pitching, and good defense? Give me that any day of the week. While Wade LeBlanc against Lance McCullers represents a significantly more lopsided matchup on paper, this team has defied the odds again and again this year. No matter what happens, though, the M’s will leave Houston with first place still in their grasp. Man, what an amazing sentence to type.