Astros get key win to open crucial road trip
SEATTLE -- All games are not created equal.
Yes, the Astros are playing one game at a time. They aren't looking ahead. They aren't looking behind.
Some games, however, are bigger than others.
And given the time of the season and what's at stake in the next couple of games, it is safe to say that the Astros haven't played a game any bigger than the one that they won, 3-2, against the Mariners at Safeco Field on Monday night.
How big was it?
Big enough that it allowed the Astros, with five games remaining on their regular-season schedule, to remain a half-game ahead of the Angels, who beat the A's, 5-4, on Monday night, and 1 1/2 games ahead of Minnesota, which beat Cleveland, 4-2, in the battle for the second American League Wild Card spot.
Big enough that it allowed the Astros to move back to within 1 1/2 games of the AL West-leading Rangers, who lost, 7-4, to the Tigers.
Big enough that it allowed rookie Lance McCullers Jr., only 21, to reaffirm his potential postseason status, allowing just two runs in six-plus innings. It not only allowed McCullers to snap a seven-start winless streak that dated back to July 29, but it allowed the Astros to win for the first time in his last six starts.
While it wasn't an offensive explosion, it was enough for McCullers and the bullpen to claim a victory, and it was another night of reinforcement of the danger of Chris Carter, whose game-deciding home run off Danny Farquhar in the top of the seventh gave him at least one long ball in each of his last three games.
But that's not all.
This was big because in a season that has nothing left except games on the road, the Astros came out on Monday night and not only won but won a game in which they had minimal margin for error, but did it outside the confines of that home-park comfort of Minute Maid Park.
And it reaffirmed their abilities at Safeco, where they are now 18-11 all-time, their best road record in any current park, and have games the next two nights before a regular-season-ending weekend visit to Arizona.
Yes, manager A.J. Hinch knows the right things to say.
"We never lost confidence on the road," he said.
But he's been around long enough, and is educated enough (a Stanford grad), that he knows there are those ghosts that can haunt a team, particularly one as postseason inexperienced as the Astros. They don't have a lineup regular with postseason experience other than DH Evan Gattis, who had 16 at-bats in four games with Atlanta two years ago. Lefty Scott Kazmir is the only member of the rotation with a postseason package (with Tampa Bay in 2008 and the Angels in 2009).
Even the bullpen is short on that October opportunity. Chad Qualls was with the Astros in 2004 and 2005. Dan Straily started one game for Oakland in 2013. And Luke Gregerson faced four batters with Oakland in the AL Wild Card Game a year ago that the Royals rallied to win.
That's why Monday's win was so important for a young franchise that is 30-46 on the road this season, and that includes winning 10 of their first 12 road games back in April. There has never been a team in a 162-game season that advanced to the postseason with fewer than 34 victories on the road.
That's why the win was so important for a team that is 10-15 in September, and has spent the last two weeks in second place after having spent only 16 previous days all season out of first place, to have success in the opening game of this six-game road trip.
"We are not going to make up for a rough month," Hinch said. "Obviously, we have put ourselves behind a little in September, but I do like the spot we are in in the present tense."