The Astros lost their series against the second-place Anaheim Angels and have now dropped four of their last six games. Ordinarily, that sort of development would cause plenty of concern. But Houston still holds a commanding twelve game lead in the AL West standings as they welcome the Rangers to Minute Maid Park. So why are Astros fans hanging their heads? Because the ‘Stros have lost yet another pitcher – this time young fireballer Lance McCullers Jr. – to the disabled list.
The news that McCullers will miss at least one scheduled start rocked the Astros faithful on Monday. The electrifying 23-year-old had become the de facto ace on a staff that’s already down Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and strikeout-machine Charlie Morton.
Sophomore righty Joe Musgrove (4-4, 4.89 ERA), himself a member of the club’s injury-riddled rotation, was activated from the disabled list to take McCulllers’ roster spot. Musgrove will face a stiff test upon his return to the big league club – he’s set to do battle with Rangers ace Yu Darvish on Monday night. It’s unclear who will slot into McCulllers’ place in the rotation on Tuesday.
Defending a division lead without 80% of your expected starting rotation is no club’s idea of an easy ride. But Houston fans can take solace in the depth of their organization. Top prospects David Paulino and Francis Martes have been promoted from the minor leagues in recent weeks, and both youngsters will be given plenty of chances to prove that they belong on the 25-man roster.
Beyond the youth movement, multi-inning relief ace Chris Devenski – one of the most valuable bullpen arms in all of baseball this season per Fangraphs.com – could provide the club with a spot start or two. And soft-tossing veteran Mike Fiers has come alive of late. Fiers spun 7 1/3 innings of two-hit, eight-strikeout ball on Saturday, carrying Houston to its lone win against the Angels. He’s 3-1 with a 2.48 ERA over his last five starts, and has trimmed his season ERA to a respectable 4.29. Perhaps more than any other club, the Astros are well-positioned to weather an injury storm.
You can bet that they’re happy to welcome the Rangers to town, as well. The ‘Stros have won six of seven contests in this year’s Lone Star Series, including a three-game sweep in Arlington earlier this month. The first 10,000 fans entering Wednesday’s 7:10 game will receive a special Lone Star Series t-shirt to commemorate Houston’s early-season success against their fiercest division rivals.
Aoki Good As Gold
Diminutive Astros left fielder Norichika Aoki is the veteran of five and a half major league seasons – and eight years in the Japan Central League before that. The 35-year-old reached a major milestone over the weekend, collecting his 2000th professional hit on Sunday. Aoki’s historic sixth-inning single earned him a spot in the Japanese “Golden Players Club” Hall of Fame. A Golden Players Club representative was on hand to gift Aoki an honorary jacket after the game.
Win Now… Also Later
The Astros are living in the present – their twelve game division lead is easily the biggest in baseball. But that doesn’t mean they’re not thinking about the future. The 2017 MLB Draft kicks off tonight, and the ‘Stros have four selections in the first 75 picks. The last two of those picks were awarded to the Astros by Major League baseball after an explosive report revealed that a member of the St. Louis Cardinals organization hacked into proprietary Astros software last season. Expect GM Jeff Luhnow to take full advantage of the extra selections as he looks to restock a talented Astros farm system.
Park Like a Local
Need a hand deciphering the parking situation around Minute Maid? Here’s one suggestion that’s sure to hit the spot: Head to The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation before the game and ride their courtesy shuttle to the stadium. Make sure you grab a bite to eat first – this classic Tex-Mex eatery is famous for inventing fajitas, and its menu is full of well-prepared favorites. They also serve one of the best margaritas in town, so you may want to think twice about $10 ballpark beer – after all, you won’t have to drive. Shuttles depart every twenty minutes or so, starting an hour before first pitch.