'We’ve got to play a lot better': Astros being tested

May 8th, 2023

SEATTLE -- When you’re the defending World Series champions, sitting at .500 after 34 games of the season is neither a cause for alarm nor something to celebrate. That’s true for the Astros after they lost the final two games of a series against the Mariners, who have tried to position themselves as contenders in an American League West that’s been ruled by Houston for the last six years.

The fact the Astros are 17-17 after losing to the Mariners, 3-1, on Sunday afternoon at T-Mobile Park is somewhat surprising considering the injuries they’ve had to endure -- losing Jose Altuve and Lance McCullers Jr. in Spring Training and starting pitchers José Urquidy and Luis Garcia to significant injuries last week.

In many ways, the Astros are already being tested more than they were last year in the regular season.

“Last year, as a team it was more than 26 guys, and I feel like it’s the same way this year,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “We’re going to need more people than the guys we broke camp with.”

Rookie J.P. France threw five scoreless innings Saturday in his Major League debut before the Mariners scored seven two-out runs in the eighth inning to win, and made his first start Sunday since 2021, giving up three runs (two earned) and 10 hits in 4 2/3 innings.

“He was fair,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Two of the runs were on an error and a balk, a questionable balk. He kept us in the ballgame. We didn’t have a bunch of chances, and they put pressure on us all day. We were fortunate enough to still be in that game and have a chance to win.”

No one in the Astros’ clubhouse is content with the way they’ve played, especially offensively. While Altuve, Michael Brantley and Chas McCormick have been injured, Alex Bregman (.195/.322/.320) has struggled at the plate and José Abreu -- the team’s big offseason splash -- has a .534 OPS and remains in the longest home run drought of his career.

“I think we’ve got to play a lot better, all around,” Bregman said. “It starts with myself.”

Kyle Tucker (.842 OPS) and Yordan Alvarez (.924) have carried the offense from the left side. Astros right-handed hitters have posted a .627 OPS, while Houston’s left-handed bats, thanks to Tucker and Alvarez, have an .873 OPS. The good news for the Astros is McCormick, a right-hander, and Brantley, a left-hander, should be activated in the next couple of days while the team is in Anaheim, and Altuve is inching closer to a rehab assignment.

“We are close to getting some guys back,” Baker said. “You’ve still got to play regardless of who you have out there. It’s not the uniform, it’s the person in the uniform. We just wanted to stick around .500. I want some distance on .500. We’re back to .500 and got a tough Angels team coming up -- they’re improving and we haven’t seen [them in 2023].”

While the lineup is getting healthy, Houston’s starting rotation has been decimated by injuries. Only two of the Astros’ five current starters -- Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier -- were in the rotation all last year. The other three -- Hunter Brown, France and Bielak -- have a combined 18 career starts.

Astros general manager Dana Brown, appearing on the team’s pregame radio show Sunday, said Urquidy will be out until the All-Star break. Garcia is awaiting Tommy John surgery and won’t return until next year. McCullers is working his way back from a forearm injury, but he remains several weeks away.

Last year, the Astros had so much starting-pitching depth that they moved Urquidy and Garcia to the bullpen in the playoffs and still dominated in October, going 11-2 en route to their second World Series title in six seasons. That luxury is gone, and the Astros figure to be major players at the Trade Deadline in pursuit of starting pitching.

For now, they’ll hope the younger starters can fill a void while banking on the lineup getting healthier and more productive as the season progresses.

“We’ve got a long road trip, and we’re going to get a couple of guys healthy and we have to keep playing the game,” Maldonado said. “That game [Saturday] got out of hand, but I feel today we were in the game. We were one batter away. That’s the way baseball is. Hopefully we get healthy soon and keep running.”