The Astros ‘threw the ball around’ and put their playoff hopes in peril

SEATTLE — In the third inning of the most important regular-season game during the Houston Astros’ golden era, competence preceded catastrophe. Kyle Tucker traced the trajectory of a 344-foot line drive onto the right-field warning track, leapt and stole a sure extra-base hit from Josh Rojas.

Mike Ford stayed on second base while Tucker took flight. Ford covers just 24.4 feet per second when he sprints. Major-league average is 27. He is one of the slowest players in the sport, yet started to tag up after Tucker completed the catch. The right fielder fired a relay throw to second baseman Jose Altuve while Ford galloped toward third base.

Altuve received the baseball with Ford more than halfway to third base. Even with Ford’s footspeed, an accurate throw would not have resulted in a close play. Altuve attempted one anyway — and airmailed it into the crowd.

“Terrible throw,” Altuve said afterward. “I don’t think I had a chance, but (with) the adrenaline of the game, I tried to do too much and put the team in a bad situation. I have to hold the ball there and give the pitcher the opportunity to play for a double play. I put the team in a bad situation with that terrible throw.”

Even if the errant throw remained in play, starter Cristian Javier failed to back up third base, another fundamental lapse on a night filled with them. Ford walked home and scored Seattle’s first run, supplying his club with a lead it never relinquished. Houston handed them another in the fifth with another affront to fundamental baseball, something more apt for spring training than a late September showdown between two supposed contenders.

“We didn’t play real well tonight. Kind of threw the ball around and we didn’t back up the bases a couple times,” manager Dusty Baker said after Houston’s 6-2 loss. “You can’t pick ’em and time ‘em. Nobody’s trying to throw the ball around or play some bad baseball.”

Ty France comes in to score in the third inning. (Steven Bisig / USA Today)

Ford walked home after Altuve’s error and Ty France replaced him at third base. Julio Rodríguez scored France on a deep sacrifice fly into the left-field corner. Left fielder Yordan Alvarez, fittingly, tried to throw home instead of second base. Alex Bregman jumped to snare the mistake, but J.P. Crawford advanced an extra 90 feet into scoring position as a result.

Defense has long been a hallmark of Houston’s success, but the regression this season is impossible to ignore. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Astros have finished in the top four in defensive runs saved during every 162-game season since 2018.

They entered Tuesday’s game ranked 17th by those same metrics. Of the 13 teams behind them, only one — the Philadelphia Phillies — are guaranteed a playoff spot.

The Astros threw away a chance to join them on Tuesday. The loss left them clinging to the American League’s third wild card spot by a 1/2 game over Seattle with four games remaining. According to FanGraphs, Houston exited Tuesday’s game with a 59.4 percent chance to make the postseason — its lowest odds since June 27. The Mariners hold the season tiebreaker over the Astros, meaning the winner of Wednesday’s game between the two teams will control its destiny during the season’s final series.

“Probably the biggest game of the year,” Altuve said. “Got to win. Got to go out there and score more runs than them, win the game and win the series.”

Blame is far-reaching for Houston’s defensive regression. Tucker, a reigning Gold Glover, started the season as one of the sport’s worst defensive right fielders before authoring a midseason turnaround.

Altuve entered Tuesday’s game worth negative-13 defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions. No second baseman in the sport has been worse. Only three catchers have worse defensive runs saved than Martín Maldonado. Most of Houston’s pitchers are pitiful at holding base runners and give away far too many extra bases as a result. None are worse than Javier, who allowed a 22nd stolen base of the season in 25 attempts.

“We have to flush it and move onto tomorrow,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, perhaps the only defensive standout this team can claim. “We’re a very good defensive ballclub, so we need to play good defense the next four games.”

Houston’s defensive disaster masked another encouraging start from Javier. He struck out six and generated 16 swings and misses, but saw inefficiency doom him during the 34-pitch third inning where he failed to back up Altuve’s airmailed throw.

“I was just looking at the throw,” Javier said through an interpreter. “Just following the ball and I got there late.”

Baker yanked Javier with two on and two outs in the fifth inning. Rafael Montero entered and fell behind catcher Cal Raleigh 3-0. Raleigh received a green light and blooped a broken-bat fly ball just inside the right-field foul line.

Rojas scored from second base. Rodríguez motored behind him in an attempt to go first to third. Tucker fired a throw to nab him. It eluded Bregman’s glove. No one stood behind him to back it up, allowing Rodríguez to jog home as the fourth run — far too many for Houston’s inconsistent offense to overcome.

Houston stranded 10 base runners and finished 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position. Squandering a prime first-inning chance against Mariners starter George Kirby portended a long evening while accentuating a problem in Baker’s lineup construction. After Altuve and Bregman began the frame with singles, Mariners manager Scott Servais intentionally walked Tucker to load the bases for five-hole hitter José Abreu.

Abreu bounced into a fielder’s choice that cut down a run at home plate. An 0-for-4 showing on Tuesday dropped his OPS to .667 in 137 games. Baker has batted him either fourth or fifth in 102 of them.

Abreu’s abysmal season has not tempered Baker’s belief in his ability to drive in runs. Abreu did enter Tuesday with a 134 wRC+ and .266 batting average in 170 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, but Servais showed little regard for such a statistic, taking the bat out of Tucker’s hands to face a man hitting too high in the batting order.

Abandoning Abreu entirely is out of the question. Baker raved about his remarkable defensive display at first base during Monday’s 5-1 win.

“It could have been a totally different game if he doesn’t make those plays,” Baker said before Tuesday’s game. “Everybody wants to just put this guy there or that guy there, you can lose games on defense. You win games on offense, but you can lose a lot of games on defense.”

Then, his team did.

(Top photo of Cristian Javier: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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