CLEVELAND — When the final story is written on the 2022 Houston Astros, chances are their performance this weekend in Cleveland will look more like an aberration than a trend.
So while it’s important to remember that the Astros aren’t as bad as they looked in their two losses, including Sunday afternoon’s 1-0 defeat at Progressive Field to split the four-game series, the weekend mini-slump is a good reminder that any team can be vulnerable come October.
In the first two games of Houston’s four game set against the Guardians, the Astros looked every bit the part of World Series contender, tallying 15 runs and allowing just three in two dominant wins over Cleveland.
But then the bats went silent.
Between Saturday and Sunday, the Astros only managed one run on eight hits, with the final series shutout loss serving as the cap on a weekend to forget.
“This is what August and September will do,” acting manager Joe Espada said. “We’re competing for a pennant and guys are tired. The most important thing is that we show up and compete.”
After Sunday, Houston completed a breakneck stretch of 19 games in 18 days that began with a doubleheader against the Yankees on July 21 and included the roster-reshaping Trade Deadline.
“[Monday’s] off-day is important,” Espada said. “Everyone’s excited to come home and spend some time with their families.”
On Saturday, Houston starter Luis Garcia was subjected to a metaphorical death by a thousand papercuts, taking the loss due to bad luck and soft contact.
The reason for Cristian Javier’s loss Sunday can be pinpointed to an exact moment. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Javier threw a fastball up that Cleveland catcher Luke Maile scorched to Progressive Field’s home run porch, the lone run scored the entire game.
And while Javier was still able to put together his second straight quality start, allowing six hits over six innings, that one pitch came back to bite him.
“He threw the ball really well,” Espada said. “He gave us a chance to win. I wish we had a few more runs for him, but he did his job.”
Javier continued his season-long trend of establishing his slider as a quality secondary pitch, generating 10 combined called strikes and whiffs on the pitch — the highest mark among any of his pitches on Sunday. Three of his four strikeouts came via that slider.
“It was a lot more consistent today, and a lot more in the strike zone,” Javier said.
The Astros’ best chance to break through against the Guardians starter Triston McKenzie came in the second inning, when Trey Mancini and Chas McCormick hit back-to-back one out singles before being stranded on strikeouts to Mauricio Dubón and Jake Meyers.
Those inning-ending strikeouts foreshadowed the remainder of Houston’s afternoon vs. McKenzie, who did not allow a hit after those back-to-back singles, tossing eight scoreless innings. At one point, McKenzie had set down 18 Astros in a row.
“He can command that fastball well, Espada said of McKenzie. “He’s just got good pitches. … He executed well; we need to figure out how to get him the next time we face him.”
Houston appeared to be on the cusp of breaking through in the eighth inning when Espada pinch hit Kyle Tucker (who drew a walk in his series debut) and Jose Altuve back-to-back with one out. But McKenzie responded in a big way, as he got Altuve to ground into an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play.
“[Altuve has] had some really good numbers against McKenzie, so I figured that was a good spot to bring him in and keep the rally going, and try to push a run or two across. It just didn’t happen for us,” Espada said.