HOUSTON — The second pitch of September landed somewhere in the right-field seats, a sobering reminder of the slog the Houston Astros have taken into the season’s final month. Injuries have wrecked the offense and inefficiency has plagued the pitching staff, thrusting the Astros into a dogfight for a division they’re used to dominating.
So much seemed automatic across the past six seasons, be it Houston’s taxing offensive approach or its tendency to suffocate opposing lineups with a stable of starting pitching. Not until the end of August did that version of the Astros appear. Struggling starters Framber Valdez and J.P. France authored bounce-back outings in Boston, while Michael Brantley and José Abreu returned from the injured list, making the lineup whole for the first time in forever.
The offense scored 52 runs and struck a franchise-record 78 hits across August’s final five games. Houston won them all to finish the month 17-11 with a plus-44 run differential. A favorable September schedule loomed for a complete club finally clicking on all cylinders.
To start the month, a future Hall of Famer faced a team he terrorizes. Earlier this week, Houston’s television broadcast wondered aloud — and with an awkward poll question — whether Justin Verlander is the New York Yankees’ “daddy.”
From the Astros broadcast 😭 pic.twitter.com/fRuMwfaKSW
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) August 30, 2023
Verlander sported a 1.41 ERA against the Yankees in his previous five starts, including a dominant outing during Game 1 of last season’s American League Championship Series. Sending Verlander to the mound against them Friday night at Minute Maid Park should have provided Houston an advantage no one in this division race could match.
Instead, DJ LeMahieu launched the second pitch Verlander threw 357 feet over the right-field wall, subduing a sellout crowd that never found much reason to reignite. If the end of August demonstrated how destructive the Astros can be, the beginning of September showed how quickly the feelings can fade.
Verlander matched his career high by allowing four home runs to a team that’s all but conceded its season. Leadoff man Jose Altuve exited the game after one at-bat with a bruised left shin. Without him, Houston’s offense failed to mount anything resembling a rally behind its ineffective ace.
“That was really tough,” Altuve said after Houston’s 6-2 loss. “I want to go out there and play the game, and especially right now we’re so close in the division, you want to be out there helping your team.”
Inside a quiet postgame clubhouse, Altuve walked with a noticeable limp and showed a sizable bruise to a group of reporters gathered around his locker. Manager Dusty Baker said Altuve was sore before the game began, a consequence of two foul balls off his left shin across the past six weeks. He fouled a third off the same spot during his first at-bat, after which Altuve acknowledged, “I don’t think I was able to make it happen tonight.” He removed himself from the game but seemed hopeful he could play Saturday.
Much of Houston’s hope for a comeback left with him. The team already trailed by three runs when Altuve departed, but his absence atop the lineup — for however long it may be — cannot be overstated.
Altuve came off the injured list July 26. The Astros averaged 6.2 runs per game across the next 33 games. Altuve has a .978 OPS since his activation. No American League player has scored more runs in that timeframe. Only Julio Rodríguez entered Friday with a higher batting average and more hits.
Without Altuve on Friday, Houston mustered four hits and two runs. Though the lineup taxed Yankees starter Carlos Rodón, New York’s two right-handed relievers — Randy Vásquez and Jonathan Loáisiga — held the Astros to one hit in 3 1/3 innings.
Houston now has a .731 OPS against right-handed pitching. Just 14 teams have a lower one. The lineup’s at-bats and approach against Rodón, a lefty, were encouraging. Rodón needed 72 pitches to procure his first nine outs. The Astros fouled off 25 of them.
But Rodón had a three-run cushion before even toeing the rubber. The three earned runs Verlander yielded in the first inning matched the Yankees’ total during their three previous meetings against him.
“Those guys are really good players, as well, and sometimes they just have good games,” Verlander said.
Verlander surrendered six runs and scattered eight hits across six subpar innings, easily his worst start since Houston acquired him at the trade deadline. His ERA is 3.86 in six starts.
Neither of Verlander’s breaking pitches fooled anyone, allowing the Yankees to feast on his four-seam fastball. New York averaged a 95.9 mph exit velocity on the 12 fastballs it put in play. The lineup took 19 swings against Verlander’s curveball and slider. Just two were whiffs.
Verlander generated just 11 swings-and-misses. He struck out just three and scattered eight hits, more than his previous two starts combined. He allowed the first major-league hits to Jasson Dominguez and Austin Wells, two top prospects summoned to signal the end of New York’s competitive season.
Dominguez delivered a two-run home run during the first inning — on the first major-league swing he took. Giancarlo Stanton supplied another two-run shot during the third, a majestic, 433-foot homer against a knee-high curveball. Aaron Judge crushed Verlander’s first pitch of the fifth inning for a solo shot onto the train tracks in left-center field.
“Some of them were mistakes and some of them were good swings on good pitches,” Verlander said. “That’s the nature of it. When you have a good start, they don’t hit the bad pitches. Sometimes when you have a bad one like today, you make some good pitches and they put good swings on them, and then you make bad pitches and they do damage on them. That seemed like what it was today.”
Both the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers lost Friday, keeping the Astros in a virtual tie with Seattle atop the American League West standings. Seattle is in the middle of a 10-game road trip while Texas is in a tailspin. Fourteen of Houston’s next 26 games are against teams below .500. The Astros’ chance to create separation is apparent, even with Friday’s dud.
“It’s going to be a fun month,” Verlander said. “Hopefully, we can turn the page from this one and get back to winning.”
(Photo of Justin Verlander after giving up a home run to Giancarlo Stanton on Friday: Kevin M. Cox / Associated Press)