Altuve's clutch hit undone by Astros' crucial mistakes

September 17th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- delivered the clutch hit the Astros had been waiting for all week. Then Houston gave it away in the bottom half of the inning, a frame that encapsulated everything about this frustrating five-game stretch.

Altuve’s three-run blast off the left-field foul pole energized the dugout and tied things in the seventh, but the Astros made two crucial mistakes to drop the series against Kansas City with a 10-8 loss Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium. Despite dropping four of their past five games to the A’s and Royals, the Astros remain in first-place in the American League West.

  • Games remaining (13): at KC (1), vs. BAL (3), vs. KC (3), at SEA (3), at AZ (3)
  • Standings update: The Astros (83-66) lead the AL West by a half-game over the Rangers (82-66) and 1 1/2 games over the Mariners (81-67). The Astros hold the season tiebreaker against the Rangers, but not the Mariners.
  • Magic number to clinch AL West: 14

However, they aren’t playing like a first-place club. The Astros have dropped consecutive series to the two teams with the worst records in the Majors, and enter Sunday’s finale in Kansas City without having held a lead in the first two games against the Royals.

There were two plays in the bottom of the seventh that turned a disappointing week into a concerning slide. The first was when Hector Neris was unable to corral Kyle Isbel’s bunt down the first-base line, which allowed a run a score and Isbel to reach base. The Astros had a chance to get out of the inning when Neris got the next batter to ground into a potential inning-ending double play, but third baseman Alex Bregman's throw to second sailed into right field, allowing another run to score. Dairon Blanco scored on a sac fly one batter later.

Houston erased a four-run deficit to tie things in the seventh, but two plays unraveled an entire series just as quickly as Altuve’s homer screamed down the left-field line. 

“ … I didn’t play clean defense at third base. If we turn a double play there, we are probably still playing right now,” Bregman said. “We just have to play better baseball, and that starts with me. I didn’t make that play today. But overall, we have to execute better.”

The pitching and defense spoiled a big day at the plate, which was something the Astros had been looking for. Houston entered having scored two or less runs in three of the past four games, but erupted for eight with the help of a Yainer Diaz homer and two RBIs from Yordan Alvarez. However, for the fourth time in five games, the Astros couldn’t put it all together.

J.P. France gave up five runs and allowed three leadoff walks, all of which came around to score. The rookie right-hander has now allowed five or more runs in three of his past four starts. 

“The leadoff walks really hurt us,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “With a team that has speed and runs as much as they do, when you walk them, you’re asking for trouble. They don’t strike out much. … We opened the gates for them, and they walked through.”

The Royals stole three bags and Blanco’s speed in the seventh forced Bregman to hurry his throw. Kansas City had just four hard-hit balls (95+ mph exit velocity) off France, but the club found ways to get on base. France generated just two whiffs on 39 swings. 

“The word I keep using for that outing is ‘unbelievable,’” France said. “They didn’t chase a whole lot, but the stuff they did chase somehow found grass. I had one hit that was three balls off [the plate], and I had one that was three balls down. I couldn’t get swings and misses for some reason.”

The Astros aren’t the first team to have troubles with the Royals’ speed, but against a 101-loss club with division hopes on the line, it’s a series that was labeled as "frustrating" postgame Saturday.

The Astros are 1-7 when facing last-place clubs this month, but they have gotten help in the standings. Houston will have a chance to improve on that mark with four more games against the Royals in the next eight days, and will need to before its luck runs out in the AL West. 

“[The Royals] are playing a lot of young guys [who are] playing loose and trying to prove that they belong here. Trying to prove they want to stay here,” Baker said. “We certainly have to salvage a win tomorrow and hopefully we keep getting some help from our friends, but it’s not going to last forever.”