'Full-strength' Astros clicking on all cylinders

August 29th, 2021

ARLINGTON -- The Astros are clicking on all cylinders as they charge into the final month of the season, having won four games in a row, including seven of their last nine. After beating the Rangers, 5-2, on Saturday night at Globe Life Field, the Astros reduced their magic number to clinch the American League West title over the A’s to 27 games.

The win showcased the Astros’ across-the-board strengths, with starting pitcher Framber Valdez throwing seven strong innings, every starting position player getting at least one hit or run scored and the bullpen, led by setup man Kendall Graveman and closer Ryan Pressly, slamming the door on the Rangers.

Astros manager Dusty Baker isn’t completely content yet, but Houston is 25 games over .500 (77-52) for the first time this year. The Astros are as healthy as they’ve been all year and are perhaps playing as well as they can as the playoffs approach. 

“We scored just enough to win,” Baker said. “We left a few men out there, but we’ve still got to improve in keeping the ball on the ground in double plays. That’s kind of our nemesis. As soon as we do that, we’ll really start rolling.”

Here’s a closer look at how the Astros are coming together: 

The lineup is complete 
For the first time since June 13, Baker was able to write in his top seven players in the lineup: Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Yuli Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. Bregman returned from a quad injury Wednesday that had sidelined him two months, which was the same day Tucker was activated following a bout with COVID-19.

In Friday’s series opener against the Rangers, Altuve was given the day off, but on Saturday, Houston’s best lineup produced 11 hits, including solo homers by Alvarez (second inning) and Correa (third inning). Even the last two spots in the order did damage with rookie outfielder Jake Meyers getting two hits and catcher Martín Maldonado adding a two-run single in the second.

“I think everybody is really happy with having everybody back, just seeing the lineup in the clubhouse today,” said Alvarez, who tied his career high with his 27th homer. “When everyone is in there, we know what we’re capable of, but we’re really, really motivated now that we have our full-strength lineup back.”

Starting pitching has been stellar
The Astros, who lead the AL in starters’ ERA (3.46), have been getting ace-like work from Valdez, who held the Rangers to two runs on three hits while striking out seven batters in seven innings. He’s 4-2 with a 2.44 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in his last seven starts and has pitched at least six innings in all five of his starts in August.

“I felt really good,” said Valdez, who consistently got ahead of hitters and threw 61 of 85 pitches for strikes. “I’ve been working on throwing in the bullpen and just being relaxed and focused and put more attention into the game to throw more strikes and have more success. I felt really good and relaxed tonight.”

Astros starters have posted a 2.66 ERA in 11 games since Aug. 17, which includes seven quality starts. Valdez has gone seven innings his last two starts and has kept it under 100 pitches each time.

“He’s throwing the ball well,” Baker said. “He’s under control. He’s throwing his breaking ball at will. He was very relaxed tonight, and Maldy directed him through the game. When he’s throwing quality strikes like that and not walking people, he’s very hard to hit.”

Graveman and Pressly are elite back-end combination
When a starting pitcher goes seven innings and Baker can hand the ball to Graveman and Pressly with the lead, it’s pretty much game over for Houston. Graveman, acquired a month ago from the Mariners, pitched around a walk and a single in the eighth, and Pressly worked around a one-out double in the ninth.

After taking over as the closer last year when Roberto Osuna got injured, Pressly has been outstanding. An All-Star this year, he has converted 21 of 23 save opportunities.

“He’s getting better and better and more acclimated in the role,” Baker said. “The thing about him is he's not walking people. There’s very little drama, which is always great on a manager’s heart and will. He’s throwing the ball great. He’s throwing his breaking ball when he gets ahead, and he’s well-locating his fastball.”