Angels win series, but Astros a legit force
ANAHEIM -- It took 18 Angels players 13 innings and four hours, 31 minutes to get it done, but they finally subdued the Astros, 2-1, on Wednesday to take a series they badly needed for reasons both mathematical and emotional. These Astros are a force to be reckoned with, and dealing with it are the four clubs chasing them in the American League West.
"That team is good -- really good," said Erick Aybar, who scored the winning run after his third hit of the day on a flared single by Taylor Featherston. "We had to play long and hard today to beat them. They have power hitters, they can steal a base. They have a lot of talent over there. Good guys, too."
The Astros are winning converts everywhere as they rack up wins with home runs, steals, quality pitching and athletes flashing leather all over the field. They have led the division since April 19 with youthful resources all the way through a dynamic roster.
It's a testament to the Astros' ascent that relief was visible in a hardened veteran such as Aybar, who played for Angels teams that won three consecutive division titles.
He marveled at the all-around talents of 20-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa, the Alex Rodriguez lookalike who doubled home the lone Houston run in what began as a duel of young guns Andrew Heaney -- making his first Angels start -- and Lance McCullers.
"That kid is amazing," Aybar said of Correa, who drove in four runs on Tuesday night, launching his fourth homer, and is hitting .300 through 16 games. "He looks like A-Rod -- so big and strong -- and he plays like Mike Trout. He can do everything.
"That team just keeps coming at you. It took everything we had to win this game and get the series."
These Angels, searching for an identity along with offensive support around superstars Trout and Albert Pujols, found a number of reasons to feel good in taking a pair of one-run decisions around a 13-3 pounding in the middle game of the series.
Assuming a rotation role temporarily vacated by Jered Weaver with a troublesome hip, Heaney was superb across six innings. The lefty came from the Dodgers via the Marlins during a winter bonanza of blockbuster deals, and this was the first of what the Angels hope will be many dividends.
"He pitched six strong innings and probably could have pitched more," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, deciding that 83 pitches were enough on a warm afternoon.
Heaney held the Astros to one run on four hits and a walk, striking out five.
McCullers, a right-hander with a power arm, matched Heaney in yielding one run in six innings on four hits and three walks, striking out six.
A leadoff walk to the red-hot Pujols in the fourth inning led to Chris Iannetta's sacrifice fly for an Angels lead. Jose Altuve's single and steal in front of Correa's rocket off the wall in left-center for a double got the Astros even in the sixth. It stayed that way into the 13th.
The Astros, with a deep and diverse bullpen, have to like their chances in games of attrition. But the Angels also have quality arms in abundance, and they kept the homer-happy Astros in the ballpark.
Will Harris, one of the endearing chapters in this marvelous script the Astros are writing, began the parade of Houston relievers with three hard-earned outs in the seventh.
Finding happiness in the city of his birth after tours with the Rockies and D-backs, the 30-year-old Harris had two men aboard with two down when he challenged Pujols with a 3-2 fastball.
The Machine, the AL leader with 23 homers, sent it soaring toward the wall in right-center, where it was back-handed by Domingo Santana. Deepening the Angels' frustrations, Harris has yielded three earned runs in 34 2/3 innings.
"We had a lot of opportunities," Scioscia said, "but we couldn't get a hit with guys in scoring position."
The Angels, batting only .244 in these game-turning situations, were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position when Chad Qualls -- the seventh reliever waved in by Astros manager A.J. Hinch -- arrived to face Featherston.
The Angels, bunched on the top step of the dugout, yelled "Balk!" in unison as Aybar darted down the third-base line to draw what Scioscia viewed as a "flinch" from the right-hander.
No call was made, leaving it to Featherston to slap a slider off the end of his bat beyond the grasp of first baseman Chris Carter. Aybar danced home, setting off the wildly familiar walk-off celebration.
"We really needed this," Aybar said. "Everyone came through today, the whole team. Maybe this will get us going in the right direction."
The Astros have been pushing aggressively forward with expanding confidence for almost three months. Heading home to engage the Yankees, these new-generation stars of Houston will not easily be caught by the Angels or anyone else in the AL West.