HOUSTON -- With an electric four-seam fastball that was humming along in the upper-90s, Astros right-hander Gerrit Cole was pitching like a man eager to wipe away the bad results he produced last time he pitched against the Rangers.
Cole struck out a season-high 12 batters and allowed one run in six innings, and Aledmys Díaz provided the breathing room with a sixth-inning grand slam to lead the Astros to their fourth win in a row, an 11-4 decision over the Rangers on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.
Here’s a closer look at three keys for the Astros’ seventh win in their past eight games:
Cole brings the heat
Cole, who allowed nine runs (eight earned) in 4 1/3 innings his last time out against the Rangers on April 20, was dominant. He didn’t walk a batter, had a career-high 24 swings and misses and hit 100 mph on his final pitch of his outing -- a strikeout of Joey Gallo in the sixth. He leads the Majors with 86 strikeouts.
“I try to approach every game the same, and as far as my preparation and adrenaline and focus was the same, but there’s just an intangible bad taste in your mouth from the last time,” Cole said. “I tried to control it and use it to my advantage.”
Six of Cole’s strikeouts came on his four-seam fastball, which had an average of 97.7 mph and generated 15 swinging strikes. Two of his biggest strikeouts came with a runner at third and one out in the fourth, when he whiffed Gallo and Hunter Pence back-to-back.
“Pence is so hot right now, and his bat-to-ball skills are unique to stay the least, above average,” Cole said. “Having two outs facing him with a runner on third is big, so Gallo was the big out there. If he puts a ball in play with one out, you’re probably giving up a run there and either tying the game or losing. It’s just a big sequence with those two hitters, and we were able to make enough pitches to get out of there.”
Astros manager AJ Hinch likely would have stuck with Cole into the seventh had Diaz not homered and the game remained close, but after throwing 97 pitches, he was ready to keep Cole in the dugout.
“He’s the hardest guy to take out of game,” Hinch said. “He almost never doesn’t throw 98, 99 to finish his outing. He can keep his stuff, along with [Justin Verlander], as much as anybody in the game. He gets going, his endurance is excellent, he knows to how finish his outings and he proves it time and time again.”
“That was the first time I have faced him, so I tried to be aggressive up in the zone,” Diaz said. “He threw me a curveball hanging [on the first pitch of the at-bat], and I pulled it a little bit, so I tried to stand more close to the second one.”
Diaz figures to get more consistent playing time in the next week with Altuve on the shelf.
“He’s an everyday player who’s stuck on a team where he’s not going to play every day,” Hinch said. “We’re going to need him the next 10 days with Altuve going on the IL. It’s going to be important for him to get more playing time over the next couple of weeks. That will help him. He’s got an everyday mentality, he’s prepared, he knows how to prepare himself for at-bats and wait for his opportunity.”
Chirinos comes through
Catcher Robinson Chirinos, who entered the game leading American League backstops in OPS (.916), had his fingerprints all over the win. He went 1-for-2 with two walks and a two-run single, and he caught former teammate Elvis Andrus trying to steal in the eighth inning.
Chirinos is hitting .318 (7-for-22) with five RBIs and a homer in six games against the Rangers, who didn’t pick up his option for the 2018 season. The Astros signed him to a one-year, $5.75 million deal to be their starting catcher, and he’s been done a solid job.