ST. PETERSBURG -- The Astros had plenty of positives to take away from their six-game road trip against two first-place clubs even before the first pitch of Wednesday night’s series finale vs. the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Houston had won four of the first five games against Atlanta and Tampa Bay. The starting pitching had been great at times. The bullpen had been extremely stingy. Jeremy Peña had made a lot of loud contact, and Mauricio Dubón had continued to hit as the Astros found ways to win despite a shorthanded lineup.
But then, rookie right-hander Hunter Brown took the mound and provided the biggest of exclamation points to conclude this daunting jaunt.
The 24-year-old Brown silenced the Rays’ Majors-best offense over seven scoreless innings, propelling Houston to a 1-0 win.
“He was very good,” manager Dusty Baker said of his young hurler. “He had command of his fastball, breaking stuff, had a good changeup tonight against some tough lefties.
“Boy, that was a great game."
Brown struck out eight and permitted only two hits and two walks. He threw 62 of his 95 pitches for strikes, and all but one of his 21 outs was either a groundout or a K.
The only flyout against Brown -- off the bat of Brandon Lowe -- came in Brown’s final frame and was bookended by strikeouts. He got Randy Arozarena to wave meekly at a knuckle-curve, then he sat down Harold Ramírez on a 93.5 mph slider, his final pitch of the game.
It was Brown’s third outing this season of at least seven scoreless innings. No other starter in the Majors has more than two.
“I just thought getting ahead of hitters with my pitches and executing when I needed to was good today,” Brown said.
Even when Brown allowed a baserunner, any thought of a rally was erased quickly. Catcher Yainer Diaz caught Manuel Margot trying to steal second one pitch after Margot’s third-inning single. Brown overcame Margot’s sixth-inning knock by getting a double play on his first pitch to Yandy Díaz.
It was Houston’s second straight shutout vs. Tampa Bay, which leads the Major Leagues in runs, home runs and OPS. Brown followed in the footsteps of Luis Garcia’s gem on Tuesday. The last time the Astros pitched back-to-back shutouts? It occurred at Tropicana Field against the Rays last Sept. 19-20. Brown pitched three innings out of the bullpen in the first of those two games.
“He had really good stuff going,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Brown. “We saw him last year, and it was pretty electric. It looks like he's probably gotten a little bit better.”
Houston’s only run came in the first inning. Peña reached on a one-out single, advanced to third thanks to two wild pitches by Rays starter Calvin Faucher and scored on a fielding error by shortstop Wander Franco.
Peña, who made a spectacular diving catch in the ninth inning, collected two of Houston’s five hits and went 8-for-24 on the road trip. He struck seven balls with an exit velocity of 103 mph or greater during those six games, which Baker said on Tuesday was “a great sign for things to come” after Peña’s slow start to the season.
Another great sign has been Dubón’s consistency at the top of the lineup in the stead of the injured Jose Altuve. Dubón’s single to right-center field in the fifth extended his hitting streak to 20 games, the franchise’s longest since Hunter Pence’s 23-game run in 2011. It also caused Houston's bench to erupt in celebration.
“They are all pulling for him to take it all the way to 56,” Baker said with a laugh.
These six games weren’t a cure-all for the Astros; Yordan Alvarez’s status is still hanging in the air. But for all the lows the team fought through during the first few weeks, these six games showed that the reigning World Series champions are still a force to be reckoned with.
“These guys, the young guys especially, are rising to the occasion,” Baker said. “Now we have to continue to play well against everybody.”