What Astros need to do to turn things around

After placing Javier on IL, Houston shut out by Washington in finale

April 21st, 2024

WASHINGTON -- It’s been a cold April for the Astros, whose most trying start in years continued Sunday when their bats went silent in a 6-0 rubber-game loss to the Nationals in the nation’s capital.

On a day that began with news of yet another injury to its starting rotation, Houston managed only four hits against rookie Mitchell Parker and two Washington relievers to earn its fifth loss in its past six tries. The defeat dropped the Astros to 7-16, matching the second-worst 23-game start in franchise history and the worst since 2016.

“It obviously sucks,” outfielder Chas McCormick said. “Things aren’t going our way, but we need to be mentally strong and get through this. It’s going to show us who we really are.”

Here are two things the Astros can do to turn things around.

1. Take advantage of their upcoming schedule
The Astros have played a very difficult schedule to begin the season, with seven games against the Rangers, four against the Yankees, three against the Braves and three against the Blue Jays -- all World Series hopefuls entering the year. They were also swept by the upstart Royals in Kansas City, who are off to one of their better starts in years.

That Houston squandered a chance at a series win by coming out flat in Sunday’s rubber game should be viewed as a missed opportunity. Instead, Washington scored three first-inning runs and ran all over spot starter before tacking on insurance runs off relievers Shawn Dubin and Tayler Scott.

“I know it seems like it’s hard for us to win a game, but we need to start piling up wins, playing with urgency,” McCormick said. “It’s going to show us what our character is.”

The schedule doesn’t necessarily get any easier with the team’s upcoming trip to Chicago for a rare series against the Cubs, who are 13-9. But it does when the Astros travel to Mexico City next weekend for a two-game set against the last-place Rockies. After that, it could be more than two weeks before they face a sub-.500 team again, with upcoming series against the Guardians, Mariners, Yankees and Tigers before they return to Houston to host the A’s.

If they’re going to withstand this spate of injuries and get back on track, the Astros need to beat teams they are better than when they get the chance.

“There is no doubt about it. We need to start playing better,” manager Joe Espada said. “I don’t think that’s a secret. And I think we’re trying. We’re not trying to lose series. We need to start playing better, for sure.”

2. Get the rotation healthy
This seemed like it was in the process of happening before ’s neck discomfort scratched him from his scheduled start on Sunday, sidelining him for at least the rest of the month. For the Astros, it’s the latest hurdle in a season snakebit by pitching injuries, though they were beginning to get healthy again with Justin Verlander’s season debut on Friday and Framber Valdez’s imminent return. There is a chance both Verlander and Valdez start in the upcoming series in Chicago -- something that hasn’t happened all year up to this point. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the Astros have already used 22 pitchers this season -- the same number they used all of last year (excluding position players). They’ll certainly need more if Javier needs to miss significant time. And while getting their top starters (Verlander, Valdez) back should stabilize things, that doesn’t make the timing of Javier’s injury any less unfortunate. Brown is struggling badly amid the turmoil. He’s now 0-4 with a 9.68 ERA through five starts. Right-hander J.P. France has a 7.08 ERA in four starts.
Javier again gives Houston five starting pitchers on the IL. They are challenging the limits of their pitching depth.

“He just needs time,” Espada said.

The other good news is the upcoming schedule favors the Astros, and that’s not even considering their opponents. They have three off-days over the next eight days, which will give the team flexibility to manipulate its rotation from a workload standpoint and provide its relief corps some much-needed time to recharge. The off-days could also limit the number of games Javier actually misses while on the injured list, if he’s able to return quickly.

“It’s not ideal with the situation that we’re in,” said Espada. “But we’re in this situation. We need to fight through this. We have guys in there who are capable of giving us innings, and some of them are doing that. We’re not going to stop fighting. We’re going to get back to playing the style of baseball everybody has seen the Astros play.”