<
>

Astros-Royals Top 5: Small ball, big ball work for Astros

You can't predict baseball! Road teams improved to 4-0 in the postseason as the Houston Astros jumped out to an early lead against Yordano Ventura and the Kansas City Royals, added a couple of home runs to build their margin to 5-2, and then watched the bullpen close it out with three scoreless innings.

There was a 47-minute rain delay after the second inning. The Royals elected to replace Ventura, who had give up three runs anyway; manager Ned Yost said it was not only a precaution because of the length of the delay but also that it would allow the Royals to bring Ventura back in Game 4 on three days' rest. The Astros' A.J. Hinch stuck with Collin McHugh, and that paid off as he hung around for six innings.

Five key moments ...

1. George Springer's first-inning walk.

After Jose Altuve led off with a line-drive single to left off Ventura, Springer worked a nine-pitch walk, fouling off three two-strike pitches. This was a huge key to Houston's two-run first inning; give credit to Springer for a terrific plate appearance. It's a sign of his maturity at the plate in his sophomore campaign. After striking out in 33 percent of his plate appearances as a rookie, he cut that down to 24.2 percent while maintaining a solid walk rate. Against Ventura, he foul tipped two tough curveballs before finally taking a fastball off the plate.

That really set the inning in motion. After Carlos Correa singled to load the bases the Astros then showed more maturity: The team that had the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors (worse even than all National League teams except the Chicago Cubs) put the ball in play. Colby Rasmus hit a hard grounder that Ben Zobrist made a diving stop on to throw him out at first but a run scored. Evan Gattis then hit a slow grounder to short to score Springer for the quick 2-0 lead. That's the kind of situational execution that you need in the postseason.

By the way, here's an interesting note about the Astros: In April, May and June, they struck out in 24.9 percent of their plate appearances. In the final three months, they cut that to 21 percent, and down to 20.1 percent in September. With fewer strikeouts, they raised their batting average to .280 that final month, averaging 5.30 runs per game. Sure, some of that came as a result of facing minor league call-ups, but it can also be viewed as a sign of a young team getting a little better and a little smarter at the plate.

Oh ... in the fifth inning Springer homered off Chris Young to give the Astros a 4-2 edge (Altuve had been caught stealing on a great throw by Salvador Perez, otherwise it would have been 5-2). Springer missed time with a fractured wrist, limiting him to 102 games. Give him a full season next year and he's going to put up All-Star numbers.

2. Collin McHugh gets out of the fifth.

With one out, Alex Gordon singled over the shift and Alex Rios walked, bringing up the top of order for the third time. Factor in the rain delay and it was a little surprising that Hinch didn't at least have the bullpen warming up. McHugh is an anomaly, however: He's much worse the first time through the order (.840 OPS) than the third (.660). The other factor, however: With Scott Kazmir starting in Game 2, the Astros had just two lefties in the pen in Tony Sipp and the shaky Oliver Perez. It may have been an inning too early to start playing matchup with the bullpen.

McHugh showed why he won 19 games: He got Alcides Escobar on a soft liner to center that Jake Marisnick (playing for Carlos Gomez, who was out with his oblique strain) made a nice diving catch on. Zobrist than bounced out softly into the shift. In fact, that was one of the keys to the game: The Astros were always in position to make the play. Altuve caught a stinging line drive off the bat of Lorenzo Cain as he was shaded a bit toward second base (although far from a full-blown shift). Springer was correctly shaded toward the right-field line on a couple of plays. Luis Valbuena snagged a grounder from Perez. The Astros had the second-most shifts in the majors -- Houston and the Tampa Bay Rays had 400-plus more shifts than any other team -- and watching this game you could see how having athletic defenders is obviously important but so is having those defenders in the right place. Call that old-fashioned scouting but give a tip of the cap to modern-day analytics as well.

3. Colby Rasmus goes yard.

He led off the eighth with a first-pitch home run off a Ryan Madson cutter -- just like his home run off Masahiro Tanaka in the wild-card game came off a first pitch while leading off an inning. Beware, pitchers.

By the way, Rasmus finished with a big final month, hitting .289 and slugging .614 with eight home runs. This was another solid under-the-radar signing by general manager Jeff Luhnow. Rasmus was coming off a poor season with the Blue Jays, hitting .225 with a .287 OBP. But he had power, he could play any outfield position and at 28 he was the right age. He didn't sign until late January, when the Astros got him for one year and a bargain $8 million. Rasmus delivered a 2.6-WAR season and he's heating up at the right time.

4. Oliver Perez gets a big out!

Back in the postseason for the first time since he started Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS for the New York Mets, Perez came over from the Arizona Diamondbacks in August to give the Astros a situational lefty in the pen. In 22 appearances and 12 innings with the Astros, he had allowed 14 hits, two home runs and four walks and was 0-3. So he hadn't exactly earned the confidence of Astros fans. He came on with two on and two outs in the eighth to face Eric Hosmer, a lefty who handles lefties well. Perez got Hosmer to foul out to third on a 1-1 slider. And Astros fans took a breath.

5. Kendrys Morales hits two home runs.

He kept the Royals close with big ones. It wasn't enough. The Royals put together good at-bats this game but outside of Morales' blasts couldn't get the timely hits at the right time. Obviously, with Dallas Keuchel looming in Game 3 at home where he went 15-0, the pressure will be big to win Game 2 behind Johnny Cueto. Hey, this is what the Royals got him for.