Houston Astros’ hot hitters look to pick on A’s again

Apr 1, 2021; Oakland, California, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) scores a run on a ground out against the Oakland Athletics during the ninth inning at RingCentral Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The reconstruction of the Houston lineup without mainstay George Springer batting leadoff began in earnest Thursday in Oakland, and two games into the 2021 season, the Astros are off to a roaring start.

Houston outslugged the Oakland Athletics 9-5 Friday on the strength of another productive night from the top of its batting order, and the Astros improved to 2-0.

Springer, who signed as a free agent with the Toronto Blue Jays during the offseason, was entrenched atop the Houston lineup for years, and his exit has ushered in a new era of sorts while simultaneously allowing Houston to revisit its past.

Second baseman Jose Altuve reclaimed his place atop the lineup, a position he held before Springer assumed the role. Two games in, Altuve is 4-for-7 with three walks and six runs. He reached base in all five of his plate appearances (3-for-3, two walks) and scored four runs in the second game of the series.

Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman have kept pace behind Altuve, with Brantley opening the season with consecutive three-hit games while Bregman has homered twice. Brantley recorded three doubles Friday, and Bregman drilled a three-run home run that got the offense rolling.

All told, the top third of the Houston lineup is 14-for-24 (.583) with 14 runs and seven RBIs.

“That’s what you want out of your leadoff man,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of Altuve. “When you have three guys at the top that are swinging the bat exceptionally well, it creates a lot of opportunities. It rolls your lineup around, and the pitcher can’t take a break.”

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The trend didn’t go unnoticed in the other dugout.

“Altuve’s obviously hot,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “The guy behind him is even hotter.”

As is typically the case with Altuve, when he is swinging the bat well, other aspects of his game shine through. Altuve hustled his way home for a decisive run in the seventh inning, scoring on a sacrifice fly that Athletics shortstop Elvis Andrus caught while back peddling into the outfield.

“That was the shortest sacrifice fly I’ve seen,” Baker said. “It’s very daring, you rarely see that.”

The Astros will attempt to claim the four-game series with right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. (3-3, 3.93 ERA last season) on the mound Saturday against A’s left-hander Cole Irvin (0-1, 17.18 ERA in 2020).

McCullers, who signed a five-year, $85 million extension during the offseason, is 5-2 with a 4.04 ERA over nine career starts against Oakland. He faced the Athletics once last season, allowing two runs (one earned) on six hits and one walk with seven strikeouts over six innings in a 4-2 home victory on Aug. 29.

Irvin is set to make his Athletics debut. It will mark his 20th career appearance and fourth start, with his first three starts coming in succession at the start of his career with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019. He was 2-1 with a 5.60 ERA in those contests.

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Irvin, who has yet to face the Astros, went 1-1 with a 1.00 ERA and a .169 opponents batting average in five appearances this spring, including three starts.

After scratching catcher Sean Murphy due to a right wrist contusion on Friday after he was hit by a pitch in the series opener, the Athletics lost center fielder Ramon Laureano to a jammed left wrist when he dove head-first into first base leading off the sixth inning. Astros reliever Bryan Abreu beat Laureano to the bag on the play, and Laureano was lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh.

“Had X-rays,” Melvin said. “Nothing structural, so we’ll see how long it is.”

–Field Level Media