ARLINGTON, Texas — Mistakes aren’t always middle-middle or driven deep into a second deck of stunned spectators, even if the past two days inside Globe Life Field make it seem so. Inside a stadium the Houston Astros have overtaken, momentum is sacred. Squandering it with six pitches to one of the sport’s sorriest hitters is the type of blunder Houston makes a habit of blitzing.
“The beauty about this team, there’s not an easy out,” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “When you think there’s an easy out, something big happens.”
Maldonado knows he’s the closest thing to one, so he started the fourth inning with one objective: get on base. Ten minutes earlier, the veteran catcher witnessed Corey Seager emerge from his series-long slump, tie the score with a solo home run and chase starter José Urquidy from the game.
Urquidy collected seven outs. His counterpart, Andrew Heaney, totaled two, turning this game into one the Texas Rangers aren’t designed to win. Only six bullpens were worse than the Rangers’ during the regular season. Thrusting starters there this October can shield some of the suspect middle relief, but it doesn’t mask the massive overall problem.
To begin the fourth inning, Maldonado stared out toward one of those converted starters. Dane Dunning spotted a first-pitch sinker in the middle of his strike zone. Maldonado swung through the slider that followed.
Maldonado fell behind 0-2 during 105 regular-season plate appearances. He boasted a .133 on-base percentage, struck out 68 times and worked four walks. Dunning misfired with his next four pitches to deliver the fifth. None of the pitches produced so much as a half-swing from someone who whiffed at a 34.1 percent clip in the regular season.
“(Maldonado) battled his ass off,” utilityman Mauricio Dubón said. “He went over there and got the rally started. It was an unreal at-bat from him and then everything started.”
Here are the nine Andrew Heaney pitches the Astros swung at in the first inning. Middle everything. pic.twitter.com/yX1SXYwzV2
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) October 20, 2023
Four of the next five batters reached. Perhaps they would have regardless of Maldonado’s outcome. The Astros’ continued abuse of Texas’ pitching staff suggests it is likely. But no plate appearance is a better microcosm of Houston’s mastery and Texas’ misery.
So much energy is expended trying to find a reason for the Astros’ season-long success at Globe Life Field, but the past two days have delivered an easy explanation.
“Seems like we make more mistakes here, to be honest,” Texas manager Bruce Bochy said before the game. “That’s what I see.”
For three hours and 14 minutes, during a 10-3 destruction of his team Thursday, Bochy sat atop a bench and watched his brutal reality laid bare. Six pitchers permitted 11 hits and 10 runs. Houston has scored 57 runs in its past five games at Globe Life Field. The team has won seven consecutive games inside this ballpark and can move within one win of a pennant behind Justin Verlander on Friday afternoon.
“We play so well here that it felt like an 0-0 series coming here,” outfielder Chas McCormick said. “That’s what the vibe was like in the clubhouse. It felt like we weren’t down at all. We’ve been in these situations before.”
Houston’s lineup accepted every sort of mistake a major-league pitching staff can make, prolonging a two-day destruction that has evened the American League Championship Series. Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and José Abreu struck six of Houston’s 11 hits. Abreu annihilated a three-run home run after Maldonado’s walk started that fourth-inning rally.
Heaney handed the Astros a three-run lead after nine pitches. Dunning yielded three more during the fourth inning. The two starters sported sub-4.20 ERAs in the regular season and were supposed to fortify Texas’ bullpen. Thursday, they furthered its collapse.
“We’ve faced these guys a lot. They’ve faced us a lot. I just think we’re not missing the mistakes,” said McCormick, who whacked Will Smith’s 0-1 slider for a cosmetic two-run home run in the seventh inning.
“When you can do some damage and work the count — I think we’ve been doing a really good job of working the count as well. When we make sure we hit mistakes, we’re a great team and we can win a lot of games like that.”
Bochy trusts three of his relievers: José Leclerc, Aroldis Chapman and Josh Sborz. Starters Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi have engendered enormous confidence, too. The quintet threw every inning of Texas’ first two wins at Minute Maid Park.
Returning to Globe Life Field forced Bochy into the underbelly of his undermanned pitching staff. It cannot contain one of the sport’s most potent offenses.
“They had a pretty good plan against us the first two games and we made some adjustments,” Astros hitting coach Alex Cintrón said. “I feel like the off day helped us a lot just to prepare for those next three games here, watching how they’re pitching our guys and trying to adjust to everything they’re doing. We have a better approach.”
Houston swung at nine of 22 pitches Heaney threw in the first inning. Five of them were in the middle three quadrants of the strike zone. Nibbling is not the answer against a team that does not chase, but neither is leaving pitches in the middle of the plate.
Alex Bregman bludgeoned a two-run triple on a 93.2 mph four-seam fastball over the heart of home plate. Alvarez sent the next pitch into center field. It was a fastball in an almost identical location. Heaney faced seven batters before Bochy removed him. Five of them reached base.
Bochy hoped for 60 or 70 pitches from Heaney. He received two outs instead, forcing Dunning into a dangerous situation. Texas’ lineup eased his burden with three runs off Urquidy across the first three innings.
Seager’s home run and two subsequent singles prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to remove Urquidy in the third. Reliever Ryne Stanek entered, spun one slider and secured two outs on Mitch Garver’s 5-4-3 double play.
“About best-case scenario,” Stanek said with a grin.
Maldonado arrived to start the fourth. He flipped his bat and began a slow trudge toward first base after Dunning’s final sinker missed the strike zone.
“Just try to get on base any way possible, especially with the big boys coming up, just try to get on base in any situation,” Maldonado said.
Dunning issued another walk to Altuve, who struck three more hits Thursday and is 15-for-41 this season at Globe Life Field. Dubón delivered a single to load the bases before Bregman struck out.
Bochy left his dugout to summon southpaw Cody Bradford for Alvarez. Bradford battled Alvarez better than most of his teammates. He fired eight pitches and filled the count. He survived one flat changeup that Alvarez spoiled foul. Another tempted fate.
Alvarez crushed it 401 feet to center field. The baseball exited his bat at 110.7 mph and, according to Statcast, would have been a home run in 17 out of 30 ballparks. Globe Life Field is not one of them.
Leody Taveras hauled in the mammoth sacrifice fly, affording hope that this mistake didn’t sink the Rangers. Abreu arrived to quash it. Bradford threw six pitches. Four of the final five were four-seam fastballs. The last one landed where none should — at Abreu’s letters. He struck it 438 feet into the second deck, another mistake Houston did not miss.
“Both of us couldn’t have missed him,” Alvarez said through an interpreter. “I couldn’t get it done, so he was able to get it done.”
(Photo of Jose Abreu and Martin Maldonado: Kevin Jairaj / USA Today)