The Mariners wrap up their road trip with a stop in Houston.
The good news is that after this series, the Mariners won’t see the Astros again until late July. That’s right: after this week, you won’t have to look at Justin Verlander’s smirky maw for a whole glorious seven-plus weeks unless you actively make the choice to seek out an Astros game, which, why would you do that. The bad news is, well, first there are three more games to get through against the Astros. As my grandmother would say, hitch up your pantyhose. (It is unclear the origin of this expression, but she used it when an unpleasant task was about to be undertaken, and I can think of no other more unpleasant task than playing the Astros in the chamber of horrors known as Minute Maid Park.)
If you’ve been keeping up with our AL West check-ins, you know that the Astros currently possess first place in the division by an 8.5-game lead over the suddenly floundering second-place Angels, currently the largest gap in the American League (although trailed closely by the Yankees, up 7.5 over Toronto). They’re fresh off a series win against Kansas City, which has almost the exact inverse record as Houston but managed to scrape up one win when the Astros came to town, and before that, a sweep of the A’s at the Coliseum. I didn’t watch the game but from what I gathered on Twitter, assume the series ended with Yordan Álvarez tearing the head off Stomper the Elephant to use as a jumbo-size Solo cup on the plane to Kansas City, where he promptly refilled it with the blood of some Royals pitchers.
Woof, okay, Yordan Álvarez. I did not run the numbers on this but let’s go ahead and assume his wRC+ of 420 over the past week was the highest among qualified batters [crying, screaming, throwing up, but: nice], Álvarez enters this series as maybe the hottest hitter in baseball currently, with four home runs over the past two series, plus a double, plus a triple because why not. Oh, and he also signed a six-year extension on Friday so he’ll be sticking around in Houston for a while. You know the red-hot Yordan has to be licking his chops at the prospect of facing the Mariners pitching staff. Maybe Yordon’t pitch to him.
Beyond Yordan, however, the rest of the lineup has been merely whelming over the past week. Kyle Tucker continues to heat up after a very slow start, and José Altuve the same after a very very slow start, but while the rest of his teammates were having fun at the expense of the Royals and A’s pitching staffs, Alex Bregman quietly recorded just two hits, a single and a double, for a whopping wRC+ of 25 for the week. Also, the Astros have been juggling finding playing time between Michael Brantley and Álvarez at the DH spot; they seem unwilling to play the 35-year-old Brantley in the field every day, but as Álvarez is somewhat of a defensive liability but an offensive powerhouse, that’s resulted in a lot less Brantley than we’re used to seeing as a mainstay in the Astros lineup.
Of course, these are the Astros, so let’s not dwell too long on their small sample-size blemishes as they’re still one of the very best offensive teams in baseball on balance, and are getting surprise contributions from role players like utilityman Aledmys Díaz, who almost single-handedly delivered a decisive win against the Royals, and of course, the perpetually annoying ROY contender Jeremy Peña, who has slowed down some from his torrid start to the season as the league adjusts to his skillset — since May 18 he’s running a more pedestrian wRC+ of 97 — but remains a threat on both sides of the ball.
From a previous series preview:
Even though he has a full, four-pitch repertoire befitting a starter, Cristian Javier throws his fastball and slider more than 85% of the time. That pitch mix is skewed a bit based on his time in the bullpen, but they’re also his best pitches and extremely effective; he leaned on them heavily even in extended outings out of the ‘pen. His breaking ball is particularly unhittable. Last year, batters swung and missed almost half the time they offered at the pitch. Even more impressive: he allowed just nine hits off the pitch, though seven of them were extra-base hits. He’s increased his slider usage up to 40% this year, though his whiff rate on the pitch has been cut in half so far.
Javier shut down the Mariners in his last start against them back in early May. He threw 5.1 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits and two walks while striking out four.
From a previous series preview:
At 39 years old, Justin Verlander is attempting to do something nearly unprecedented in major league history: successfully return from elbow surgery at an extremely advanced age. He made one start in 2020 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery; it was just the second major injury of his career and he became the second oldest starter to ever undergo the procedure. He had thrown more than 200 innings in every season of his career except two up to that point. During the offseason, the Astros signed him to a one-year, $25 million deal with a player option for 2023. The Astros clearly expect him to pick up right where he left off.
The cruelty of the schedule means this will already be the fourth time the Mariners have faced Justin Verlander this year. They torched him for six runs on ten hits, including four home runs, in their last meeting in Seattle.
From a previous series preview:
José Urquidy has always shown a ton of promise with a solid four-pitch arsenal, but has struggled to put everything together in a full season. Injuries have certainly played a part in that, but he’s also failed to maximize all of his strengths to rack up strikeouts. During his debut season in 2019, both his curveball and slider ran whiff rates north of 40%. Neither pitch has reached those lofty levels since then and it’s a big reason why his strikeout rate hasn’t come close to matching the 24% he posted during that first season. He does possess phenomenal control, so even if he’s not K’ing batters, he’s still keeping them from taking free passes. That’s critical to his success because can also be pretty homer prone.
In both of his previous outings against the Mariners, Urquidy has allowed six runs to score and has given up a combined 20 hits. His strategy of filling up the strike zone simply doesn’t seem to work against the Mariners brand of aggressiveness.
The Big Picture:
They say its impolite to laugh at the suffering of others, but there’s a certain amount of joy to be had in seeing a rival come crashing down. The Angels have stretched their winless streak to 11 games after losing in heartbreaking fashion in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon. They lead by four heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, but a Bryce Harper grand slam tied things up. The Angels scored once in the top of the ninth giving them a brief glimmer of hope before Bryson Stott belted a game-winning three run homer minutes later. It was a devastating end to a bad week in which they scored just five runs prior to Sunday’s game. They’ll host the Red Sox for four games to start this week. The Rangers head off on a short Midwest road trip to face the surging Guardians and floundering White Sox.