Astros Week: Brantley, McCullers and a Bad Call from Baker

The Astros swept the A’s, but have dropped the first two of a four-game set in Chicago. It’s a crazy portion of the league’s condensed schedule with lots of necessary days off for rotation guys. Fortunately, the Astros continue to go with a six-man rotation now that Lance McCullers, Jr. is back, but fatigue has got to be taking its toll.

The good news is the team maintains an 11-game lead in the division and remain two games ahead of the Yankees for the top spot in the AL. They should cruise to a division win, but winning the AL outright, especially after the Yankees were projected to win 120 games earlier this season, would be huge. They will have to do it without Michael Brantley, unfortunately. All that in this week’s notes.

Dusty’s bad call in Chicago.

“You can put t on me.” That is what the Astros skipper had to say after his team went from up 2-0 to down 2-4 with two outs in the eighth inning. Jose Urquidy was absolutely dominant in seven-and-two-thirds innings when he gave up a dribbling infield hit. It was then Baker decided to give him the hook after 94 pitches despite his absolutely manhandling of the White Sox. Rafael Montero, who the previous night had struggled and was clearly gassed, gave up four runs (including one charged to Urquidy) and the team went on to lose.

This is not the first time Baker’s managerial decisions have been called into question, but when your team is 75-42, it’s tough to argue the results. Plus, Chicago is in the thick of a division race and clearly wanted this one more. Still, putting a hard throwing guy like Montero in there after Urquidy was rolling with a range of off-speed and breaking pitches felt bad at the time. Turns out, it was.

Michael Brantley is done for the season.

As we suspected in this space last week, it felt like left fielder Michael Brantley wasn’t going to get back into an Astros uniform this year (maybe ever?) and that turned out to be true when the team announced he would have season-ending surgery on the shoulder he’d been trying to rehab since June 27 when he was put on IR. GM James Click said Brantley had done everything he could to get back, but the outfielder’s quality of life was being affected, never mind his abilities on the field, so this was the best decision.

Losing a quality left handed bat is certainly a blow, but Click said getting Trey Mancini, who hits both lefties and righties well, was part of their decision process at the trade deadline knowing Brantley might not make it back. It felt inevitable last week. Now, we know for sure.

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Lance McCullers came back strong from injury with six scoreless innings.

Photo by Jack Gorman

Lance McCullers, Jr. returns in stunning debut.

Lose one, add one was the theme this week as McCullers came back with a vengeance, throwing six scoreless innings in an 8-0 win over the A’s. The right handed pitcher came back after missing most of the playoffs last year and all of this season so far. The main goal was for him to be healthy and feel good, but it was a much bigger return than that. All his pitches looked solid and he appeared to be back to the form he was in last August and September when he was as dominant as anyone in the AL.

He joins a staff that has the best ERA in the American League with six legitimate starters including Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, both All Stars. It was also the primary reason the team moved Jake Odorizzi at the deadline. If McCullers does come back strong, this will be one of the best starting rotations this franchise has ever seen just in time for the postseason.

Speaking of Oakland…

The Astros managed to finally break the curse of the A’s with a three-game sweep of the team with the worst record in the AL West, but one that seemed to give the Astros fits. Entering the game, the teams were tied with six wins each, but the Astros pummeled Oakland at Minute Maid giving them the season series and finally knocking the A’s back down to the cellar.

Upcoming Series

The Astros continue in Chicago against the White Sox through Thursday before a weekend rematch with their World Series opponents last year in Atlanta. The Braves are in a battle with the Mets for the NL East, but should safely make the playoffs as a wild card with the current third best record in the NL. The Astros finally, mercifully get a day off Monday before a pair of series against the Twins and Orioles at home.

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