ARLINGTON, Texas — Scoring chances are being squandered and Houston’s season is nearing the brink, forcing manager Dusty Baker to consider a change with one of the American League’s most prolific run producers.
Baker said he met with struggling outfielder Kyle Tucker on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a “temporary” move down in the batting order for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
Tucker is 2-for-22 with seven strikeouts and one RBI during the postseason. Baker did not say outright that Tucker will bat lower in Wednesday’s batting order, but he brought it up without prompt and mentioned “some guys that are swinging better ahead of” Tucker.
Tucker never hit lower than fifth during the 156 regular-season games he started. He hit cleanup during Houston’s first four postseason games before batting fifth in Game 1 of the ALCS and third during Monday’s 5-4 loss in Game 2.
“Whatever we can do to possibly try and win games is fine,” Tucker said following the team’s workout on Tuesday at Globe Life Field. “We have talks throughout the year about that and other stuff just in general. I’m trying to focus on going out there and making good plays on defense and trying to move runners over and get guys in. We’ll just see how tomorrow goes.”
Kyle Tucker on his at-bats: “They’re terrible. I feel fine, just my swing is not there. I haven’t done anything with any of the pitches. It’s been tough.” – https://t.co/3Xm7bb1oGF
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) October 17, 2023
Tucker is 1-for-6 with three strikeouts in his career against Texas’ Game 3 starter, Max Scherzer, which Baker acknowledged will factor into his decision. That Michael Brantley is 18-for-49 with 11 extra-base hits against Scherzer only reinforces the notion that a shakeup is looming.
“Michael has had pretty good success against Scherzer,” Baker said while describing the dilemma. “I wrestle at night and don’t sleep sometimes trying to figure out different lineups, that’s all I do.”
Baker is always reluctant to bat his left-handed hitters back-to-back, especially against a Rangers bullpen that contains five southpaws, but Tucker and Alvarez hit left-handers so well during the regular season that it rendered any possible platoon advantage somewhat moot.
Brantley is not near as adept at hitting left-handed pitching as either Alvarez or Tucker. Still, Baker could create some balance by batting Brantley second between right-handed hitters Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman.
Alvarez could remain in the cleanup spot ahead of José Abreu, another right-handed hitter, giving Baker the balance he desires. Abreu is 7-for-25 in his career against Scherzer, who will be on a limited pitch count after missing more than a month with a teres major strain.
Tucker is not his team’s only problem. Altuve and Abreu have combined to go 1-for-15 and strike out six times in the first two games of this series. Bregman is just 2-for-8. The team has four extra-base hits in 18 innings. Alvarez has half of them — and both are solo home runs.
“I haven’t been putting the best swings on balls, maybe just chasing a little bit and fouling pitches off,” Tucker said. “It just happens. It’s baseball. You’re not going to get hits all the time. You just have to keep going out there and putting up as good of an at-bat as possible every single time, trying to move guys over, get guys in and hope for the best.”
Tucker has seen 46 pitches outside of the strike zone during Houston’s first six playoff games. According to Baseball Savant, he’s only swung at eight of them — a more than acceptable 17 percent chase rate. Tucker has struck seven of his 15 balls in play this postseason harder than 95 mph, but that’s in line with his 45.9 percent hard-hit rate from the regular season.
Two of those hard-hit balls came on Sunday — a 106.4 mph lineout at Texas first baseman Nathaniel Lowe and a 101.1 mph groundout against Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning.
Alvarez followed Tucker’s groundout with a mammoth solo home run to pull his team within one, demonstrating the problem Baker risks with keeping a struggling hitter batting near Alvarez.
“It’s tough, especially since I haven’t really done much and we lost the first two games,” Tucker said. “Obviously it’s never just one thing that sways a game one way or the other, but if you can contribute — whether it’s just moving guys over or driving guys in. A groundout to second, moving a guy from second to third can be the difference in a game. It’s an out, but as long as it contributes to getting a run in, it’s huge, especially in the playoffs. Any way I can either do that or get a hit or something, anything matters at this point in the year.”
No more meetings
Few contending clubs conducted more closed-door team meetings than the Astros.
They gathered in late August after getting swept by the Seattle Mariners at Minute Maid Park, again after the New York Yankees swept them to start September and — for the last time publicly known — after their second straight loss to the Oakland A’s on Sept. 12.
Other speeches or team-wide messages must have occurred during the 162-game grind, but details never publicly leaked. Now, two losses away from winter, the team does not subscribe to the notion that another meeting is needed.
“I think we know what we need to do, actually,” said veteran catcher Martín Maldonado, often the man at the center of these gatherings. “I don’t think we really need a team meeting.”
Maldonado echoed what many inside Houston’s organization have repeated in the past 24 hours: the team didn’t play poorly or fundamentally unsound during the first two games of this series. Yes, Altuve made a baserunning blunder in Game 1 and Framber Valdez imploded in the first inning of Game 2, but the team still had so many chances to win both games. Texas simply outplayed them.
“The first game, they got us. (Jordan) Montgomery pitched really well. The second game, I thought we had chances to win,” outfielder Chas McCormick said. “I thought we played really good. It’s encouraging, though. You got to have some momentum saying, ‘Yeah, a couple big two-out hits, we win that game.’ It could easily be 1-1 coming into here and we’d have a lot of momentum because we play really well here. But it’s 2-0 (in favor of the Rangers), a little different, but all we have to do is win tomorrow.”
The Verlander debate
A loss on Wednesday would prompt a fascinating debate for Baker and Astros pitching coach Josh Miller in Game 4 — whether to bring Justin Verlander back on short rest in an attempt to save the Astros’ season.
Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the ALCS:
▫️ 6.2 IP
▫️ 6 H
▫️ 2 R
▫️ 2 BB
▫️ 5 K pic.twitter.com/8zUnbCiQOW
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 16, 2023
Verlander has pitched on three days of rest twice in his 18-year major-league career: once in relief during the 2017 American League Division Series against Boston and again as a traditional starter in Game 4 of the 2019 American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Verlander surrendered five earned runs and eight hits across those 6 1/3 innings. Tampa knocked him out after 3 2/3 innings in a game Houston lost 4-1. Gerrit Cole, on full rest, struck out 10 across eight innings in Game 5 and sent the Astros back to the ALCS.
Having Cole on full rest for Game 5 allowed former Astros manager A.J. Hinch to gamble by using Verlander in Game 4. So did Houston’s 2-1 lead in the series. Baker and Miller may not have either luxury — and may not have a better option than a future Hall of Famer.
Asked if there is any scenario in which Verlander could appear on short rest in this series, Baker replied, “We haven’t even talked about it.”
“We’re just trying to win this game tomorrow,” he continued. “So, I mean, if it presents itself, then we’ll see. But right now we haven’t even discussed that.”
(Photo of Tucker: Michael Starghill / MLB Photos via Getty Images)