HOUSTON — In the sixth inning of a September slugfest, the go-ahead runs stood at first and second base, bringing one of baseball’s worst hitters to the plate. Options to replace him included a rookie right-handed hitter with 22 home runs and one of the most renowned left-handed contact hitters of this decade.
Dusty Baker left both on his bench to stay with Martín Maldonado, the man who brought a .594 OPS into Monday’s series opener against the Baltimore Orioles. The veteran catcher saw four pitches from Baltimore reliever Jacob Webb, swung through three of them and struck out for the 129th time in 108 games.
The outcome felt foregone. Baker’s decision-making even more so. He has given 64 pinch hit at-bats this season. Only two American League teams entered Monday with fewer: the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees.
None of those three clubs are constructed to mix and match or manipulate their rosters midgame. Superstar players must propel them where they intend to go. Houston has them in bunches, and most are paid handsomely to hit.
Maldonado is not. Baker places such an emphasis on Maldonado’s game calling and pitcher management that he almost refuses to hit for him before the ninth inning — especially when the team has a slim lead or is still within striking distance. A division race during September’s dwindling days won’t change that.
To the batter’s eye. pic.twitter.com/yCvlGKOfcf
— Houston Astros (@astros) September 19, 2023
“There’s more urgency, but you can’t panic, either,” Baker said before the game. “It does no good. It does your players no good. You try to do the same and just improve.”
Monday demonstrated how beholden Baker is to his plan. Blaming him for the team’s 8-7 loss is flawed logic, but opportunities existed for either Baker or his coaching staff to create advantages, more favorable matchups or — in the case of Maldonado during the sixth — increase the possibility of a big inning with either Yainer Diaz or Michael Brantley as a pinch hitter.
Instead, the Astros gave away perhaps their best win of the second half and failed to seize advantage of another Texas Rangers loss. Two outs from victory, Houston closer Ryan Pressly surrendered a go-ahead, three-run home run to Cedric Mullins, forcing the Astros to maintain their place in a division no one appears willing to win.
Houston has lost six of its past 10 games — four against the 100-loss Athletics and Royals — and somehow lost only a game in the American League West standings. The Seattle Mariners’ win Monday inched them within 1 1/2 games of the Astros for the division lead, tying them with the Rangers.
“It was devastating, but you have to get over it,” Baker said. “You can’t bring it back. That hurt a lot.”
Superstar players performing at their peak render most managerial moves moot. Two swings Monday almost did. Before Maldonado could descend the dugout steps during the sixth inning, leadoff man Jose Altuve annihilated Webb’s next pitch into the left-field corner for a double. Both runners scored, and Houston took a 5-3 lead its short-handed bullpen could not protect.
Debate will rage whether Baker and his coaching staff chose the correct pitcher to preserve it. José Abreu’s seventh-inning solo home run sought, for a moment, to settle it. His 425-foot shot off the batter’s eye afforded the Astros a 6-5 lead. Maldonado added a solo home run in the eighth to extend it to 7-5.
“I think it’s two of the best teams in the world competing, and they came out on top tonight,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I thought our quality of at-bats as a lineup were great, just didn’t do enough.”
Burying Baker may be en vogue, but Bregman and Yordan Alvarez finished hitless in nine at-bats. Pressly and Rafael Montero — the team’s two highest-paid relievers — teamed to surrender seven hits and five earned runs. No matter who is managing or making decisions, Houston won’t accomplish its goals if either of those trends continue.
Montero entered Monday with a 2.10 ERA across his past 30 innings, during which opponents were hitting .189 with a .625 OPS against him. Baker did not have setup man Bryan Abreu, who required X-rays after taking a line drive off his right forearm Sunday in Kansas City. Images were negative, Baker said, and Abreu could be available Tuesday.
On Monday, Baker trusted Montero to face the top of the Baltimore order. Montero, a right-handed reliever, possesses reverse platoon splits. The top of Baltimore’s lineup included left-handed hitters Gunnar Henderson and Ryan O’Hearn. The duo finished with eight of Baltimore’s 16 hits.
Sandwiched between them is switch hitting Adley Rutschman. All three struck hits against Montero. So did Mullins, another left-handed hitter whose double delivered the tying run.
Without Bryan Abreu, Baker essentially bumped his leverage relievers up a rung. He saved Hector Neris, normally the seventh-inning man, for the eighth, when Abreu would pitch. Neris’ track record this season and those before it far surpasses Montero’s, even with Montero’s recent resurgence.
Left-handed hitters have a .492 OPS against Neris this season. He lowered his ERA to 1.90 with a scoreless eighth inning. Using him for the most lethal part of Baltimore’s order in the seventh inning — and perhaps saving Montero for a less daunting part of the lineup — could have been beneficial.
The home runs by José Abreu and Maldonado erased the mess Montero made. Baker hitting Abreu cleanup Sunday and Monday drew intrigue, but the decision only reinforced his reluctance to panic in the middle of a pennant race.
José Abreu awoke Monday with a .655 OPS. He delivered a double and a go-ahead solo home run to reward Baker’s faith and give Pressly a lead to protect.
Pressly had not pitched in five days. Baker wondered whether the layoff affected his two-time All-Star closer, but Pressly only replied, “It’s my job to stay sharp.” Mullins took his starring swing against a slider Pressly seemed willing to throw again.
“That’s a well-located pitch. I’m sure he was sitting on it. He got his pitch he wanted to hit, and he took advantage of it,” Pressly said. “It’s not in the middle part of the plate. Nine out of 10 times, people roll that pitch over, and he just went down and got it.”
Eighteen of Pressly’s 31 pitches were strikes, but Pressly generated just two whiffs on the 10 swings Baltimore took. Singles from O’Hearn and Austin Hays preceded Mullins’ blast. Both exited the bat harder than 104 mph.
“Any loss at this time is tough,” Pressly said, “but we’ll figure it out and come back tomorrow.”
Pressly probably will not. He threw 31 pitches Monday and, as a result, may not be available Tuesday behind rookie starter Hunter Brown. Montero has pitched in three of the past four games while Neris has appeared in two of the past three — and needed 53 pitches. Houston exercises extreme caution with its relievers. Monday proved late September doesn’t seem to change that — or any — thinking.
(Photo of Cedric Mullins’ ninth-inning home run: Troy Taormina / USA Today)