Tough trip ends: 'We have to play better'

September 14th, 2020

The part of the Astros’ schedule that looked to be the most challenging on paper proved to be even more so in real life. A woeful 11-game road trip through California pretty much derailed Houston’s hopes of winning a fourth consecutive American League West title and has their playoff hopes on wobbly ground.

Sunday night’s 8-1 loss to the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium sent the Astros back under .500 (23-24) with two weeks remaining in the regular season and was Houston’s ninth loss in 11 games -- all coming on the road. Houston dropped 6 1/2 games behind the first-place A’s in the AL West and is only 1 1/2 games ahead of the Mariners for a playoff spot.

“All in all, this road trip was a really tough one,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said. “I think we have to play better. We’ve got to do whatever we have to do to win games, starting from me calling better pitches and as a hitter putting up good at-bats.”

After rallying for a dramatic 7-5 win Saturday that could have served as a springboard for the final regular-season push, the Astros sputtered in the finale. Mookie Betts clubbed a two-run home run to cap a four-run fifth inning against Astros starter Zack Greinke, who’s 2-2 with a 5.79 ERA in his last five starts.

“You’ve got to take some of the blame along the way, but I don’t know,” Greinke said. “Maybe the changeup to Betts was one thing I shouldn’t do.”

Greinke allowed homers to AJ Pollock in the first inning and Betts in the fifth, giving up five earned runs and eight hits in five innings. The Astros were held scoreless by a parade of Dodgers relievers, with George Springer’s leadoff homer in the sixth keeping them from being shut out.

When the road trip started, the Astros were 21-15 and only two games behind the A’s. The trip represented a chance for the defending AL champs to roar once again. They were averaging 5.3 runs per game with a .755 team OPS and had a plus-27 run differential. A young pitching staff that had been rocked by injuries held steady with a 4.09 ERA.

Sifting through the rubble of the trip reveals the Astros posted a .641 OPS in the 11 games, averaging 3.9 runs per game with 11 homers. Their pitching staff posted a 6.60 ERA and only one quality start. The season run differential is down to plus-5 after they were outscored by two runs a game on the trip.

The good for the Astros is they return home to a much more favorable schedule. They play host to the Rangers (17-30) and D-backs (17-31) for three games, before ending the season with three games at the Mariners (21-25) and four at Texas. The Astros are 5-12 this season against teams currently with a winning record and 18-12 against those .500 or below.

“We need to see better pitching, better defense, better offense,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We’ve got to get some guys back. We got [Alex] Bregman back and he swung the bat pretty good today. We get [Jose] Altuve back next week. ... Get some home cooking and regroup.”

In addition to Bregman (hamstring) and Altuve (knee), starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. will return from the IL and start Wednesday against Texas for his first outing since Sept. 4. And Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, appears set to return in the final week of the season after he was shut down following his season-opening game with a forearm strain.

“If he can get a start before the playoffs, that would be huge for us,” Maldonado said.