HOUSTON — The Houston Astros have made plenty of statements this season. But suddenly, they’re full of questions.
Yes, they’re the defending champions. Sure, they won 103 games during the regular season. True, they steamrolled the Indians in the American League Division Series and started off the ALCS as strong as ever. But now, after getting blown away by the Boston Red Sox in Game 3, they’re on the wrong side of a 2-1 tally. What’s more, they find themselves faced with the prospect of starting someone not named Verlander or Cole or even Keuchel in their most important game of the year. For what it’s worth, nobody in the Houston clubhouse is panicking.
“I don’t think we’re going to roll over,” manager A.J. Hinch told reporters after his team’s 8-2 loss. “So we’ll see you back here at 7:09 tomorrow night.” If you’re scoring at home, that’s 30 minutes earlier than the scheduled first pitch on Wednesday. In other words, Hinch can’t wait for Game 4. He’s not the only one who’s already put Game 3 in the rear-view mirror.
“This team does a good job of worrying about the next pitch,” says red-hot slugger Alex Bregman, who reached base three more times on Tuesday, but lined out to center with the tying run on second in his final at-bat to end the seventh inning. “That’s really what baseball is all about. Worrying about the next pitch. The first pitch of the game tomorrow, that’s the most important pitch of our season. When that one’s over, we move on to the second. Baseball is a game that’s based on failure, so you have to have a short memory. The guys in this clubhouse do a good job of understanding that.”
The guys in the Astros locker room also have a solid grasp on what it’s like to have their backs against the postseason wall. Last year, they trailed the Yankees 3-2 in the ALCS, but came back to win the final two games of the series and advance to the Fall Classic. So it’s not like this is uncharted territory.
“It takes four wins to win this series,” said Hinch. “They know that. We know that. We’re down 2-1, but it’s about tomorrow’s game.”
With that in mind, here are the biggest questions facing Houston ahead of Wednesday’s Game 4 showdown:
How much rope does Charlie Morton get?
The Astros had three pitchers who reached 200 innings during the regular season, but Morton wasn’t one of them. In fact, Morton’s 167 innings this year were the most he’s thrown since 2011, when he worked a career-high 171 ⅔ for Pittsburgh. What’s more, the 34-year-old righty hit the disabled list in late August with shoulder discomfort. Even though he spent the minimum 10 days on the shelf, he hasn’t exactly been a workhorse since returning: Over the past month, he’s thrown a total of 58 pitches. That includes a 24-pitch start on September 23, when he was lifted after one inning because his shoulder was barking. Nevertheless, he’s scheduled to take the mound — for the first time in 17 days — in what’s now Houston’s biggest game of the year. Not that his teammates appear to be worried.
“Charlie’s a warrior,” said Bregman of the hurler who closed out Game 7 of the World Series by tossing four innings of relief to pick up the win on short rest after starting Game 4. “Last year, he was unbelievable in the postseason. This year, he has 15 wins. Just a veteran guy who’s going to go compete for his team and try and give us every chance to win.”
If Morton falters early though, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hinch give him an early hook and turn to a bullpen that features plenty of length in longtime starters like Lance McCullers and Colin McHugh.
How much trust does Roberto Osuna get?
Since coming to Houston in a highly scrutinized deadline deal, Osuna — the former Blue Jays closer who was suspended for 75 games this season for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy — has been good. Like, really good. In 23 regular season appearances with the Astros, he posted a 0.88 WHIP with a 1.99 ERA, and was a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities. He also tacked on two scoreless appearances during Houston’s ALDS sweep of the Indians. But all that came to a screeching halt on Tuesday.
In a nightmarish eighth inning, Osuna hit two batters and allowed three hits, including a grand slam by Jackie Bradley, Jr. The salami extended Boston’s lead to 8-2 and completely silenced the raucous Houston crowd — except for a smattering of boos that rained down on Osuna after he was pulled.
After the game, Osuna received the customary vote of confidence. “There’s going to be some big outs we’ll need from him in the rest of the series,” said Hinch. “He’ll clear his mind. The closers have a short memory, especially him. And we’re going to expect him to close out tomorrow night’s game with the lead.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder how Hinch will use his 23-year-old closer going forward. It’s worth noting that during that brutal eighth inning, Osuna threw 27 pitches, one fewer than his season high with the Astros. That was back on August 21 against the Mariners. The next night, Hinch called on Osuna again, and the reliever rewarded his skipper by collecting his first save in an Astros’ uni. But that was August, and this is October.
How much support does Alex Bregman get?
What Bregman is doing this October borders on the legendary. With two hits and a walk on Tuesday, his on-base percentage now stands at .714 for the postseason. His seven walks in the ALCS are tied with Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas for the most free passes through the first three games of a seven-game series. Not for nothing, he’s been standing on his head at third base, where he made several jaw-dropping plays in Game 3. But offensively, as Tuesday’s contest proved, he alone can’t carry the Astros.
Cleanup hitter Yuli Gurriel, whose .403 average with runners in scoring position was second-best in the majors during the regular season, is hitting .111 in such situations during the playoffs, and .174 overall. Carlos Correa, who has battled back problems this season and has been a shell of his normal self offensively, was in the seven-hole again on Tuesday and is hitting .190 in the postseason. Even George Springer, the 2017 World Series MVP whose October exploits are well-documented, was relatively quiet in Game 3, going 1-for-4 with a pair of whiffs.
“Their offense did a good job,” said Bregman of the Red Sox. “If we want to win tomorrow, we’ve got to do a better job on our end.” Despite another big day at the plate, Bregman took the high road and lumped himself in with the rest of his teammates. “I just try and help my team win games. Didn’t do a good enough job of that today. Came up with a man in scoring position and a chance to tie the game and didn’t.”
He wasn’t the only one who failed to come through: Houston went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on base. If the Astros plan on evening up the series on Wednesday, they’ll have to do a better job of capitalizing.
How much rest do Houston’s banged-up stars get?
Despite his struggles, and despite resting extensively down the stretch, Correa has been in there for all six of the Astros’ playoff games. Ditto for Jose Altuve, whose sore knee resulted in him DH’ing on Tuesday, and who looked less than whole on a first-inning single toward the left-field corner that might have been a double if Altuve had two good wheels. But don’t expect either of Houston’s stars to sit any time soon.
“I have no doubt he’s going to play tomorrow,” said Hinch of Altuve. “I’m either going to DH him or play him at second. But he’s leaving it all out there.” So too are the Astros. Whether that will be enough to advance, only time will tell.