Correa in leadoff spot for 1st time in career

Smith trying to find his way; McCullers ready to start Sunday

April 22nd, 2021

The Astros turned to shortstop to bat leadoff for Thursday’s series opener against the Angels. Manager Dusty Baker said Correa, who had never batted leadoff before in his career, would hold down the top spot until Jose Altuve returns from the COVID-19 injured list.

After George Springer regularly held down the leadoff spot over the past five seasons, Correa is the fifth player to hit first this year for Houston. Myles Straw began the season as the leadoff hitter before Baker returned to Altuve, who went on the COVID-19 IL April 14. Straw, Kyle Tucker and Chas McCormick took turns at leadoff during the road trip.

“He’s only there because Altuve is gone,” Baker said. “Altuve is pretty good batting leadoff. I’m hoping it doesn’t take him very long to find his stroke when he comes back.”

Entering Thursday, the Astros ranked 26th in the Majors with a .599 OPS and 27th with a .280 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot.

Baker said Altuve is doing “much better” and is hoping the second baseman could return this weekend or early next week. Altuve has been lifting weights and running, but he hasn’t started hitting yet.

“We miss him tremendously,” Baker said. “Not only him as a player, but him as a person.”

Smith encouraged by Seattle outing
It’s been a difficult few weeks for veteran reliever Joe Smith, who opted out of last season because of COVID-19 and has fallen flat so far in 2021. Smith entered Thursday having allowed eight runs and 11 hits in five innings (14.40 ERA), with 15 of the 30 hitters he’s faced reaching base.

“It’s frustrating as hell when you walk out there and get slapped around like you don’t even belong in the big leagues,” Smith said. “You can sit there and keep getting your butt kicked, or you can work and continue to get better and try to find something. That’s what we’re doing, and I feel good with where we’re headed.”

Last week, Smith worked with pitching coach Brent Strom on making mechanical changes in the lower half of his body, and he also compared video from this year to 2019. He saw some progress in Seattle, though the results weren’t there.

On Sunday, Smith's four-seam fastball velocity was up 1.1 mph (87.5 mph), his sinker was up 1.5 mph (86.3 mph) and his slider was up 1.2 mph (77.7 mph) from season averages, per Statcast. Still, all three pitches were below his 2019 figures when he was at 88.9 on the four-seamer, 87.1 on the sinker and 79.6 on the slider.

“The location the past few outings has been absolutely horrendous with me yanking the fastball off the plate when I’m trying to go away, and leaving the fastball in when I’m trying to go in,” he said. “With the stuff that we’ve been working on with my lower half, I just need to get that timing back and get that consistent feel.”

Smith said the most frustrating aspect is that he was being counted on to be a steady hand for a bullpen hit by injuries.

“I’ve been through ups and downs but never quite this bad, that’s for damn sure,” he said. “It was a tough one. There’s only one thing to do. You got to keep coming back and keep grinding and find a way.”

McCullers’ health problems behind him
After dealing with respiratory problems and weakness as side effects from receiving the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine last week, right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. said on Thursday that he’s back to 100 percent and is ready to return to the mound Sunday against the Angels.

McCullers didn’t feel well during his start against the Tigers on April 14 and needed IV fluids after the game. Two days later, conditioning tests showed that he was able to perform at only 20-30 percent of his normal strength. He threw a bullpen session on Sunday in Seattle and felt fine, and was scheduled to throw another Thursday.

“I’m glad it’s over,” he said. “In the long run, especially with what we’ve been dealing with as a team over the last week, it will be worth it. I’m just glad it’s behind me.”

The Astros placed five players on the COVID-19 IL prior to the April 14 game against the Tigers, which was the last time McCullers pitched. Four of those players were activated prior to Tuesday’s game against the Rockies.