Swept for third time, Astros 'need to find a way to win'

April 17th, 2024

HOUSTON -- Jeremy Peña removed his helmet with two hands after he hit into a game-ending double play on Wednesday afternoon and slammed it to the ground. Alex Bregman sat in the dugout for a few minutes after the final out and stared out at the field. Disbelief and frustration were evident on the faces and in the actions of an Astros team that’s not used to losing.

Houston was swept for the third time this season -- and the second time at Minute Maid Park -- when the Braves came from behind in the eighth inning to tie and pushed the winning run across in the 10th for a 5-4 win. The loss dropped Houston to 6-14 -- its worst 20-game start since 2016, which was the last time it didn’t make the playoffs.

“I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them,” Bregman said. “Good teams find a way to win games, so we need to find a way to win games.”

After five innings of two-run ball from starter J.P. France and clutch hits from Yordan Alvarez, Bregman, Kyle Tucker and Mauricio Dubón to take a 4-2 lead after six innings, the Astros had their vaunted back-end bullpen trio lined up the way they wanted: Bryan Abreu in the seventh, Ryan Pressly in the eighth and Josh Hader in the ninth.

Even the best-laid plans aren’t working out for the Astros, who saw Pressly give up two runs in the eighth to allow Atlanta to tie the game, including a run that was unearned because of a fielding error by struggling first baseman José Abreu.

Abreu, who went 0-for-2 with a walk to drop his batting average to .078, couldn’t handle a Matt Olson two-hopper, allowing Olson to reach base and Austin Riley to take third. Riley scored on a sacrifice fly that should have been the final out of the inning.

“Right now, things are not going [Abreu’s] way,” manager Joe Espada said. “As a team, we just need to come together and play better and finish games. We’ve just got to play cleaner overall.”

Abreu is the poster child of everything that’s gone wrong for the Astros, but injuries to the starting rotation have taken their toll on the entire pitching staff, and the offense is inconsistent. After scoring 25 runs while taking two of three games from Texas over the weekend, the Astros scored seven runs in three games against the Braves.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we played overall,” Espada said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better, sometimes it hasn’t been. We’ve got to put it all together and play more as a team, and once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

Houston had the potential tying run at third base and one out in the 10th inning for Peña, who capped an 0-for-5 day by hitting into a 6-4-3 double play against Braves closer Raisel Iglesias to end the game and extend the misery.

“We have a great team,” Peña said. “This is a team that’s won year in and year out, and we’re confident in our players. We’re confident in each other, and we’re going to pull for each other.”

When asked if he thinks the 6-14 record was indicative of the way the Astros have played, Bregman said, “Yeah, I do,” before adding: “I think all that matters is execution on the field, preparation prior to the game and winning. We haven’t executed well in all phases of the game.”

Some frustration was even evident from Espada, who has remained as upbeat as he can throughout a lackluster start to his managerial career.

“It doesn’t feel good,” he said. “None of those guys in there want to lose. We’ve done a lot of winning here in years past. We’ve got to go back to doing the things we’ve done here in years past if we want to start winning series.”

Thursday’s off-day -- only the second of the season for the Astros -- comes at a good time. The team flew to Washington after Wednesday’s game and will activate ace pitcher Justin Verlander for the first time this season to start Friday against the Nationals.

There’s no time for excuses.

“This is not what we expected when we came out of the chute playing this type of baseball, but you know what, this is where we’re at,” Espada said.