It’s not so much that the Houston Astros are better than the Kansas City Royals—that was obvious before the first two games, obvious during them, will be obvious for all of this season and might be obvious until the earth is shrouded in fire and all that remains are sorcerers and asbestos—but more distressing is how much of a difference two swings of the bat have played over the first two games, and how avoidable it should’ve been.
In the opener, Evan Gattis’ grand slam turned a one-run Royals lead into a three-run deficit. Saturday afternoon it was Max Stassis, whoever that is, taking a game somewhat in the balance and effectively putting it to bed. Let’s dive in to the similarities!
In the sixth inning of Friday’s opener, Jakob Junis entered with a perfectly reasonable pitch count (77 pitches), induced a flyout to the opening batter and then went single-single-single-Gattis homer. Junis, already into the third time through one of baseball’s toughest orders, needed to be on a short leash and yet was given the latitude to not only load the bases but also give up the game-changing grand slam. At some point during that would it have been prudent to pitch a fresh Tim Hill before putting him into the game long after it mattered? Who knows, but it’s not like removing Junis was akin to removing peak Greg Maddux.
In the sixth inning of Saturday’s game, Danny Duffy entered with a perfectly reasonable pitch count (77 pitches) and induced a one-out flyout, but sandwiched it between a walk and a single, followed by a three-run Stassi home run. Duffy, already deep into the third time through one of baseball’s toughest orders, HAD to be on a short leash and yet was given the latitude to not only give up the game-changing home run but also finish the inning—he even faced George Springer a fourth time just for kicks. At some point during that would it have been prudent to pitch a fresh Kevin McCarthy before putting him into the game long after it mattered? Who knows, but it’s not like removing Duffy was akin to removing peak Tom Glavine.
Lots of similarities there. And sure, there’s the whole “Let’s try not to completely waste our bullpen” side of this argument—how many of these (mostly) bad sacrificial lambs need to be slaughtered on a daily basis when you’re already losing? My counter is that, with two days off this week, you won’t find this bullpen more rested than it’s been and you definitely won’t be able to find too many games that hang in the balance, however remotely, against an upper-echelon team in 2018. These are your playoffs, for all intents and purposes—treat it that way, dammit. Feel free to lose by seven runs to the Rangers in games that are never close.
Also, the offense is poop, so all of the above may not have mattered. I’m nothing if not contradictory.
Houston had staked itself to an early 4-0 lead thanks to a two-run Altuve double in the first, followed by a fifth-inning Jake Marisnick single and a sac fly by Alex Bregman to plate a pair. Had Mike Moustakas’ error not put George Springer on first—had the play been made—then Bregman’s flyout is just a flyout.
Two-hit Whit Merrifield again lived up to the billing, with his fifth-inning double scoring Drew Butera and serving as Kansas City’s only extra-base hit. Moustakas endeavored to atone for his miscue by driving in Ryan Goins with a single. Two-run game.
But then Max Stassi happened. And in the ninth, after hope had faded anyway, Alex Bregman homered on a waist-high change offering from Burch Smith, who is no longer very good and may never have been.
The Bright Spot: Two scoreless innings from McCarthy and Brandon Maurer, who may not have become a better pitcher during his stint in Omaha but brought a little extra trash with his ‘stache on his return. So there’s that.
The Nadir: You know what, you saw it. Pick one.
The Next Step: The first full-fledged “Here’s Brad Keller!” experience should debut tomorrow when the Royals close out the series against Lance McCullers Jr. and the Astros. He was at 85 pitches last time out, so the training wheels should mostly be off, although Scott Barlow will be available to piggy-back should he need it.