Not even a visit to Coors Field to play the struggling Rockies was enough for the Astros to turn things around.
A two-run home run by Yuli Gurriel in the second inning -- the first homer for the Astros in a week -- was about the only offense Houston could muster as the Rockies finished a two-game sweep with a 6-3 win Wednesday afternoon in snowy Denver.
“We didn’t catch any breaks today,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We hit the ball today better than we have in a while.”
The Astros have lost nine of 10 games and will head home after a 1-4 road trip to Seattle and Colorado. Houston has scored three runs or fewer in eight of its past 10 games and has tallied seven runs and 11 hits in three games since beating the Mariners, 1-0, on Saturday.
“Over the course of 162 games, you’re going to go through ups and downs,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who went 2-for-3. “I feel like a lot of guys, myself included, are off to the best starts of their career. Some of us are slow starters. It’s about getting the consistency up and down the lineup, and we will do that. I know we will. I’m looking forward to working hard and getting ready to win some baseball games.”
So what has gone wrong for the Astros following a 6-1 start in which they averaged 7.3 runs per game?
1. The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll
The Astros played four games without Bregman, designated hitter Yordan Alvarez and starting catcher Martín Maldonado while they were on the COVID-19 injured list. They were activated prior to Tuesday’s game, along with reserve infielder Robel García. Plus, the Astros haven’t had second baseman Jose Altuve for a week while he remains on the COVID-19 IL.
“They weren’t sharp and couldn’t work out, and if they did work out it wasn’t like game conditions,” Baker said. “That was what I was fearful of in the beginning. Just because you’re back doesn't mean you’re really back.”
Even before the four starters hit the IL, the Astros were struggling with the bats. They had lost four in a row heading into their April 14 game against the Tigers, which was their first with a short-handed lineup. The Astros were relying on youngsters Alex De Goti, Taylor Jones, Abraham Toro and Chas McCormick last weekend in Seattle to try to get back on track, plus outfielders Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker are off to poor starts at the plate.
Getting Alvarez back off the IL prior to Tuesday’s game didn’t even have an impact, considering there was no designated hitter at Coors Field and the club doesn’t seem motivated to get the slugger reps in the outfield or at first base. In two games in Colorado, he was limited to one pinch-hit at-bat Tuesday when the game was out of reach.
The result? The Astros are slashing .207/.273/.296 with five home runs and 26 runs in their past 10 games.
2. Starting pitching has been subpar
Astros starters have thrown at least six innings only four times in 15 games, and three of those belong to Zack Greinke. That has put pressure on a bullpen that has been riddled by injuries, with Enoli Paredes, Pedro Báez, Andre Scrubb and Blake Taylor all on the IL.
Astros starters have registered three quality starts -- all by Greinke -- and have posted a 4.52 ERA. Without Greinke’s numbers, the starters’ ERA balloons to 5.25.
Now that they’re in the midst of playing 13 games in a row, the Astros will return Cristian Javier to the rotation Thursday at home against the Angels. He’ll be followed by Greinke on Friday, with Jake Odorizzi making his third start with Houston on Saturday. Odorizzi found his footing somewhat in his last start, but he hasn’t completed five innings yet.
Then there’s Lance McCullers Jr., who became ill while pitching April 14 and was pushed back in the rotation. He pitches much better at home, so his start Sunday should provide him with a chance to go past five innings for the first time this season.
3. Slow starts by Straw and Tucker
Straw hasn’t played well in center, where he’s taking over for George Springer. He’s slashing .200/.262/.200 in 16 games with 11 singles and no extra-base hits. He was out of the starting lineup Wednesday after feeling side effects from his second COVID-19 vaccine.
Needless to say, the Astros have to find a way to get Straw on base more or perhaps give more playing time to McCormick. Tucker had been counted on to be a middle-of-the-order bat following his breakout 2020 season, but he’s slashing .169/.200/.400 with four homers and 11 RBIs through 17 games. He’s 1-for-21 in his past six games, but he had three of the five hardest-hit balls Wednesday at 105.6 mph, 103.2 mph and 102.4 mph, according to Statcast. Maybe that’s a sign he’s about to break through.