Wittenmyer’s MLB notebook: ‘Stro’s Woes: Houston’s José Abreu takes forgettable trip down Memory Lane

jose abreu

CHICAGO — It was such an easy, tempting prediction to make that Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker jumped at the chance to back his slumping first baseman, José Abreu, and suggest Abreu’s first return to Chicago, where he became a star, would spark the former MVP.

“Hopefully, these surroundings will bring back some pleasant thoughts and memories,” Baker said. “I’m like, ‘Hey, man, just recall those days and hopefully they’ll return.’ “

Instead, the damndest streak in baseball this year continued — three more games without a first Astros home run for the three-time All-Star who hit 30 or more five times for the Chicago White Sox before signing a three-year, $58.5 million free agent deal with the Astros over the winter.

Abreu, 36, was more humble entering the series. Asked about whether he was surprised to see his former team playing so poorly this year, he said, “It’s a very tough game that we all play, and I think I’ve been going through a lot more struggles than the White Sox have.”

Dropped to fifth in the order for the series, Abreu and the Astros at least left Chicago with another series win, lifting them past the Los Angeles Angels into second place in the AL West, behind the Texas Rangers.

Abreu wound up with two singles and a walk in 13 trips to the plate during the series, his season average falling to .214 and his career-long homerless drought reaching 56 games and 236 plate appearances.

His last home run came Sept. 13 in Chicago against the Colorado Rockies.

Baker has seen star players he’s managed have lengthy struggles before breaking out, and he said it’s just a matter of time for Abreu.

“He’s probably never struggled like this, but he works exceptionally hard and has a great attitude about things and the team,” Baker said. “This guy is a great team guy. He’ll be all right. We’ve just got to get him going, and once he starts rolling there’s a lot of good stuff to come.”

Matter of time? Maybe it’s a matter of waiting for one more series.

Next up for the Astros is the Chicago Cubs, who began a three-game series at Minute Maid Park on Monday. Abreu, who went 2-for-3 with two RBI in Monday’s game, has slugged (.641) the Cubs around better than he has anybody else in his career that he has faced more than 13 games, with a 1.064 OPS to match — hitting .352 with 12 homers and 34 RBIs in 41 games against what used to be his crosstown rivals.

Way Too Early NL Cy Young Watch

mitch keller

The Pittsburgh Pirates can’t blame their free-fall in the National League Central on Mitch Keller.

The right-hander has the Pirates’ only two victories in their last 13 games — with back-to-back gems on May 8 against the Rockies and Sunday against Baltimore Orioles in which he combined for 16 scoreless innings, with 21 strikeouts and just one walk.

“That might be the best pitching performance of the season. That was a pitching clinic,” O’s manager Brandon Hyde said after Keller struck out a career-high 13 in Sunday’s 4-0 win.

Keller (5-1, 2.38 ERA) has pitched three times during the 2-11 slide that dumped the Pirates from 1.5 games up in the NL Central to 1.5 games behind the now-first-place Milwaukee Brewers.

He allowed just one earned run across 21 innings in those three starts.

The Pirates lineup, however, scored just 18 total runs in the 1-11 skid that preceded Keller’s gem Sunday, scoring no more than three runs in any of those games.

The Fish that Got Away

dusty baker

Dusty Baker returned to Chicago over the weekend as a World Series-winning manager for the first time in a three-decade career doing the job.

But it wasn’t the Houston Astros’ win over the Philadelphia Phillies last fall or the back-to-back shots he had to get his first ring since he played for the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers that crossed his mind when he was asked about it in the dugout before the series opener against the Chicago White Sox.

“I don’t feel any vindication or any of that,” he said. “Now that you mention it, I wish I could have been the first guy to bring the World Series championship here. Actually we were close. We were very close.”

Baker famously managed the 2003 Chicago Cubs to within five outs of the World Series, eventually losing an eighth-inning lead in Game 6 and then Game 7 to the Florida Marlins in the NLCS. The Marlins then beat the New York Yankees in the World Series.

“They got theirs with Joe Maddon and those guys,” Baker said of the 2016 title. “Right now I’m just thinking about getting my club together, getting them healthy and trying to win another championship.”

He squares off against the Cubs this week for the first time since his Washington Nationals lost to Maddon’s Cubs in the 2017 playoffs.

Asked how things have changed for him since winning the World Series, if there’s been a difference this year, he said:

“Not managing this team. The only difference has been life in the world. I’ve gotten smarter now, according to other people.”

Playing without MVP second baseman José Altuve (broken hand) and All-Star starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (forearm) since the start of the season, the Astros have won five of their last six.

Short Hops

willson contreras

Catch ‘Em if You Can: After a three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox over the weekend, the St. Louis Cardinals are 6-2 after moving catcher Willson Contreras out from behind the plate and making him the DH. Their team ERA is 3.88 (starters: 5:05). They were 10-23 at the time of the move with a 4.71 team ERA (starters: 5.39). Contreras was behind the plate during the Cardinals’ 18-1 win against the Brewers on Monday.

Friendly Confines, Indeed: That Cardinals stretch began in earnest when they opened their first series of the year against the Chicago Cubs, at Wrigley Field — going 6-1 since that day and completing their first two three-game win streaks of the year, winning back-to-back series for the first time this season. They’re not the first team to limp into Wrigley this year and sprint out. The Los Angeles Dodgers were 9-10 when they opened a series at Wrigley April 20 — the latest into a season they were under .500 since 2018. They won three of four against the Cubs, launching them to a 17-5 surge overall that vaulted them from two games back of first place to three games ahead of the second-place Arizona Diamondbacks.

Fishing for Complements: On their off day last week before their series in Chicago, Baker took a small group of his young players fishing in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a group that included rookies Hunter Brown and Corey Julks and second-year player David Hensley. “You have to get away from work sometimes, no matter what your job is,” said Baker, who has made a habit over the years of getting to know his less familiar players by taking them fishing. “You find out a lot about people when you get them away from work and talk about things like family and life.” 

Road Kill: The Cubs had not given up 10 runs in a game this season until surrendering 11 and 16 to the Minnesota Twins at Target Field on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Their next two series are  on the road against the teams that played in the World Series last fall, at Houston and then at Philadelphia.

Twins Killing: The Twins, by the way, scored only two runs in the other game in that Cubs series, but it was enough to give them the record for a three-game series at 14th-year Target Field (29 runs).

Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.

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