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Know Your Enemy: Houston Astros

Those cheatin’ cheaters

Saturday Night Live - Season 45 Rosalind O’Connor/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

I have a working theory that the Astros manufactured the entire COVID-19 pandemic just so they wouldn’t have to play in front of hostile crowds during the 2020 season. Given how they are still being booed and still being taunted with trash cans when they’re at other fields, this theory has some credence as long as you have no other follow-up questions.

A.J. Hinch is the only one really to have punished for the scandal, by having to manage the Tigers this season. Nothing happened to any of the players. But thank god MLB is saving us from the horrors of Spider Tack, because that’s really what is ruining the sanctity of baseball.

Anyway ...

2020 Houston Astros: 29-31 (second in AL West)

Last season was notable for the Astros, for a couple of reasons. First, the sign-stealing shenanigans took the baseball world by storm through the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 (before COVID overtook everything). Gerritt Cole ran off and joined the Yankees for nine years and $324 million. Astros players who were still around issued half-assed apologies for their roles in the cheating. It was a mess for the Astros.

The season started with Justin Verlander getting hurt in one start and going down for the season with Tommy John surgery. A host of other injuries didn’t help them either (Roberto Osuna, Yordan Alvarez, Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Alex Bregman all hit the IL for various amounts of time). Unfortunately, it wasn’t all bad for the Astros — rookies Blake Taylor, Andre Scrubb, and Enoli Paredes basically carried the bullpen with a combined 2.37 ERA in 65 innings. Jose Urquidy and Cristian Javier hit the starting rotation and combined for a 3.11 ERA in 84 innings.

With the reshuffle of the schedule, the Astros finished the season behind the Oakland A’s. The only AL teams they did better against was the Mariners. They were 5-5 against the Rangers, who were not doing well in 2020.

Due to MLB’s fakakta playoff rules in 2020, the Astros made the playoffs by virtue of the loss by the Angels. This was the second time an AL team had reached the playoffs with a losing record (the first being the 1981 Royals). The Astros were matched against perennial playoffs loser, the Minnesota Twins, in the Wild Card Series. In the ALDS they met the Oakland A’s and went 3-1. Thankfully, Tampa bounced them out in the ALCS in seven.

The Astros spent a lot of time with the “prove them wrong” mentality. Like they were some sort of underdog with a low payroll that is actually good (sorry guys, that was Tampa Bay) as opposed to a team that cheated their way to a World Series in 2017. They seem to have carried this attitude into 2021 as well.

2021 manager: Dusty Baker

I have a bit of respect for Dusty Baker. Including the Astros, he’s led five different teams to the playoffs and is only one of six managers to reach the postseason 10 times. He was a standout on the Dodgers, winning three NLCS (1977, 1978, and 1981) and a World Series (1981). Baker managed the Cubs during the infamous Bartman kerfuffle and put up with Sammy Sosa, which should get anyone an award. He’s occasionally been an analyst for baseball postseasons, but so has Pete Rose.

Baker was hired after A.J. Hinch was fired in the wake of the sign stealing. He was the safest bet for the Astros — a respected manager who had been around MLB for a long time. Old-school, traditionalist, solid, not a drunk, and respected around the league, he was tapped for 2020 with an option for 2021 (which was picked up). Baker recently won his 1,900th regular season game as a manager. However, he’s not exactly known as a great postseason manager despite leading multiple different teams to the playoffs.

He’s known as a “player’s manager” and has weird thoughts about maintaining integrity of a playoff race (something about using veterans over prospects — I don’t know, I wasn’t following his logic). Baker is also known for saying weird crap about Black and Hispanic players being better in the heat and sun while white players are better in the cold and that there’s a better chance of getting speed from Black and Latin players, falling back on the old “I’m not being racist. That’s just how it is.”

2021 so far ...

In terms of offseason action, the Astros signed some pitchers (Ryne Stanek, Pedro Báez, Jake Odorizzi) and a catcher (Jason Casto). They said farewell to George Springer, as he left for Toronto and Josh Reddick, off to the Diamondbacks. Osuna overestimated the number of teams that were looking for a player with a domestic violence suspension on their record and elected for free agency (for those who are invested, he’s playing in the Mexican League).

They’re currently sitting in second of the AL West behind the Oakland A’s. ESPN recently booted them up from eighth to sixth in its MLB power rankings. They’re hitting .304 in June and lead the league in OBP, slugging, OPS, isolated power, and wOBA. Michael Brantley is leading the team in BA (.344) and OBP (.389) while Jose Altuve leads in home runs (15) and Yuli Gurriel leads in hits (72) and RBIs (48). It will surprise exactly no one that Zack Greinke is the ace on the pitching staff, leading in ERA (3.74) and wins (7).

Against the rest of the AL, Houston is first in runs and hits, third in home runs, second-to-last in stolen bases, fifth in walks, and are currently first in season BA (.276). Yes, the Astros are good — that’s hard to dispute. However, we can still definitively hate them for their lack of apologies to the cheating scandal and the constant stupid “come from behind, fighting adversity” attitude.

Pitching matchups: Greinke-less series

Today is going to see Dylan Cease facing off against Jose Urquidy. This is Cease’s second start against Houston and first at Minute Maid Park. He lost the last time he faced the Astros in 2019, going six innings and allowing four runs on five hits. Over his last seven games, he has a 3-2 record and 4.21 ERA over 36 13 innings pitched, with 14 walks and four home runs. This season, he’s 5-2 with an ERA sitting at 3.38. Urquidy, meanwhile, is 4-3 with a 3.77 ERA, posting 55 strikeouts. He gave up three solo home runs on Friday against the Twins; overall he’s allowed 11 homers and issued 11 walks in his 62 innings this season. He’s 4-1 in his last seven games, allowing 31 hits and walking four while posting 35 strikeouts.

Friday is Carlos Rodón vs. Luis Garcia. Rodón had a no-hitter into the seventh on Sunday against the Tigers and has posted 97 strikeouts over 66 23 innings this season, allowing 39 hits. His record is 6-2 with a 1.89 ERA with 97 strikeouts in 2021. In his last five games against the Astros, he’s 1-0 in 32 13 innings pitched, allowing 32 hits and walking nine. In Rodón’s last seven games, he’s 2-2 in 41 23 innings, allowing 32 hits and striking out 61. Garcia has a 5-4 record this season with a 2.98 ERA. He gave up four runs (three earned) on Saturday. Garcia has never faced the White Sox, and in his last seven games he’s 5-1 with a 2.79 ERA, going 38 23 innings and striking out 44 while walking 11.

Saturday is Lance Lynn vs. Framber Valdez. Lynn is 7-2 this season with a 1.51 ERA and 80 strikeouts. His last five starts against Houston have resulted in a 1-4 record, lasting 32 23 innings while allowing 40 hits, walking nine, striking out 43, and giving up 10 home runs. Valdez has a 3-0 record with a 1.42 ERA and 24 strikeouts. He’s never faced the White Sox, but in his last seven starts he’s 5-0 in 43 23 innings, allowing 31 hits and striking out 50.

Sunday is going to be Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. to wind things up. Keuchel spent his first seven years in Houston, and this is the first start as a visitor in Minute Maid Park. He’s also referred to McCullers Jr. as being like a son, so this should be an interesting face-off. Keuchel is 5-0 during his last seven starts and has fanned 29 while walking eight. McCullers Jr. is 3-1 this season with a 2.89 ERA and striking out 62. He recently returned from the IL with shoulder soreness.

Hating the Astros: mostly trash cans