You make a team pay for their mistakes. The Toronto Blue Jays did in the first inning of last night’s game. They could not continue the pressure and it came back to haunt them.
The Houston Astros sent righty pitcher Collin McHugh to the wet, soggy mound (we’ll get to that) against the Blue Jays. He posted a 4-9 record with a 3.45 ERA going into the game. McHugh had 10.35 strikeouts per nine innings this season. Seemed to be a good choice to have him throw against a hot Jays squad in front of just over 19,000 fans in Minute Maid Park.
That is until McHugh started working. A pitcher is very particular of how his cleats move and land on the mound. On this night, the grounds crew worked the mound over a little too much. It looked like a mud hill from almost the very beginning of the game. McHugh also seemed a bit off as he planted his lead foot, pitching everywhere but the strikezone. The Blue Jays capitalized as Jose Bautista waited until a ball actually entered near the zone and absolutely drilled it to left field, hitting the scoreboard so hard that a number popped off and landed on the warning track. It moved Melky Cabrera into scoring position.
Dioner Navarro‘s long fly ball scored Cabrera to give the Blue Jays a 1-0 lead. That’s what you do: capitalize on a team’s mistakes.
McHugh was missing his spots badly. He commonly uses the slider 26% of the time, yet it would slide right past the strike zone and would make Carlos Corporan have to dive from his knees to catch the ball to the sides. The Astros’ strategy seemed to be to pitch everyone at the start of the game low and away, so it made Corporan’s night pretty difficult as McHugh was a lot more than just outside the plate. There was a delay during the top of the second and third innings, as the Astros’ manager, Bo Porter asked to have the game on hold twice to fix the mound conditions for his struggling starter.
The problem for the Blue Jays was that they did not capitalize on the issue. For a team with a .340 OBP in July, the Jays seemed way too aggressive at the plate, chasing balls that were not hittable. Especially the lower half of the batting order.
Danny Valencia, newly acquired from the Kansas City Royals, was swinging at everything. He would swing at curve balls that Corporan, for some reason, kept tipping off to everyone would be really low, because he would push his glove into the dirt each time. Valencia would be down in the count each time that he went to the plate. To be fair, Valencia did hit a double in the seventh inning to be 1 for 4 with a strikeout for the game. The team only had 6 hits, most of them coming in the first few innings, while striking out 8 times and leaving 6 runners on base. Pitches were often mishit for pop-ups or grounders for the Astros to easily dispose of Blue Jay batters.
McHugh didn’t need to be sharp or blame the mound, because the Blue Jays let him off the hook. His night ended by pitching 6.1 innings, giving up 1 run on 5 hits and 1 walk, with 5 strike outs.
J.A. Happ seemed to have no problems with the mud, as he seemed relatively sharp throughout the game. His delivery was compact and continuously hit the strike zone with good velocity. His only trouble was in the fourth inning, when Chris Carter hit a sharp ground ball that was too tough for Jose Reyes to make a play. Happ then walked Matt Dominguez and Jesus Guzman hit a looper which dropped in front of Colby Rasmus, which scored Carter from second base. Happ finished seven innings by only giving up 1 run on 3 hits and 2 walks, while striking out 6 Astros.
Aaron Loup. Not so much.
Loup’s first pitch of the eighth inning is demolished by Gregorio Petit, who looked anything but little as the ball sailed over the left-field fence for his first home run of the season. Loup’s second pitch of the inning is drilled by Jose Altuve, which gets stuck under the left-center field padding for a ground-ruled double. The next batter, Robbie Grossman spanks a sacrifice fly to Bautista in right field to score Altuve, to the joy of the sprinkling of Astros fans in attendance.
After the Astros’ closer, Chad Qualls, mowed down the Blue Jays’ bats in the top of the ninth, Houston won the game 3-1. Valencia, who played first base, was called out on strikes to end what was a dismal affair as a team in terms of plate approach.
Toronto demonstrated what it takes to win at the beginning of the game. They were patient at the plate, looking for balls to hit, which was rare. Take the walk if you have to, but get on base. Move runners around. Instead, they seemed to smell blood in the Houston waters and tried to belt any ball that came in their direction. Many of those pitches were not hittable. The Blue Jays went chasing for a win but hooked a big fat loss.
When you do that, the legendary baseball ‘gods’ come back to haunt you. Hopefully it will not be the case in today’s rematch. Lesson learned?