Series Preview: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners, April 16-19, 2018

     Game 1: James Paxton vs. Dallas Keuchel

     Game 2: Ariel Miranda vs. Lance McCullers Jr.

     Game 3: Mike Leake vs. Gerrit Cole

     Game 4: Marco Gonzalez vs. Charlie Morton

The Astros (10-6) come to Seattle hoping to rekindle some of that Grasshopper Magic as they try to turn things around after dropping two consecutive extra-innings heartbreakers against the Arlington Rangers at Minute Maid. At 8-5, the Mariners sit just a half-game behind the Astros in the AL West standings, so achieving at least a split in this series will be essential in order for the Astros to not risk falling into third place.

Despite their recent struggles, the Astros still bring an AL-leading ERA into the series, currently sitting at 2.74. The Mariners’ pitching staff has had the hardest go of it in the AL to start the season, with an ERA of 4.89. Perhaps the lackluster Mariners pitching is exactly what the Astros need to spark the offense in their new season, which has slipped to a below-league-average OPS of .694.

The Bruised and the Battered

The Astros are fortunate to be in very good health as a team. Lefty reliever Tony Sipp is still on the DL with a strained oblique and is replaced by righty James Hoyt. The Mariners, for their part, are without the services of catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Ben Gamel, and infielder Ryon Healy. One possible consequence of having Gamel out of the lineup is that we will see a bit more of the still-amazing Ichiro Suzuki, who has not appeared to slow down much with his amazing outfield defense in spite of being the MLB’s second-oldest player.

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The ever-dangerous Nelson Cruz is primed for an offensive breakout

Players to Watch

Nelson Cruz, Mike Marjama, and Guillermo Heredia are all due to break out offensively in the near future. They have shown good plate discipline but just not achieved the results they seemingly deserve so far this season. For the Astros, Yuli Gurriel showed great pop off the bat immediately after re-joining the big league team after recovering from hamate bone surgery, and looks set to continue hitting well in Seattle. Also, Alex Bregman continues to take good at-bats in spite of not having a whole to show for it in terms of hits.

Offensive Leaders

For the Mariners, the quartet of Robinson Cano, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, and Jean Segura has absolutely knocked the cover off the ball early in the season, and will present formidable opposition to the Astros pitching. Cano may be due to slow down, even if only a little bit, owing to an unsustainably-high .500 BABIP, but fortune may continue to smile on him for yet a while longer.

For the Astros, Josh Reddick (188 wRC+) and Jose Altuve (131 wRC+) continue to lead the offense, anemic as it has been to this point. George Springer, who got 4 hits (including 2 home runs) in 13 at-bats versus the Rangers in the most recent series, will try to continue on the road to improvement.

The Strugglers and Stragglers

The Astros’ trio of Derek Fisher, Jake Marisnick, and Evan Gattis have fallen victim to the strikeout at a prodigious pace this year, helping extinguish any possibility that they might contribute offensively at anywhere near the level they did last year. Gattis, though not a particularly old player at 31, has seen a marked decline in his power numbers and still has not hit a home run after 46 regular-season at-bats. (For that matter, Gattis failed to homer in 38 spring training at-bats as well – something rather uncharacteristic of the Bearded White Bear.)

Pitching Matchups

In Game 1, Dallas Keuchel will take on James Paxton. Paxton held the Astros to just 4 earned runs over 21.1 innings in four starts against Houston last year. Nonetheless, the Astros were able to win two of those games through solid pitching and success in hammering the the Mariners’ bullpen. While Keuchel has not quite shown his Cy Young stuff this year, most informed analysis of Keuchel’s performance this year suggests that a good deal of his struggles (.305 BA against, 1.80 WHIP) have been due to pitching in games with a home plate umpire disinclined to call the low strike on which Keuchel so heavily depends.

In the second game, Lance McCullers Jr. will go up against Ariel Miranda. This will be Miranda’s first major league start this year. In 2017, he started 29 games, pitching to a 5.12 ERA and 5.79 FIP. Of the six games that Miranda started against the Astros last year, Houston took 3 and lost 2. McCullers is coming off the worst start of his career, an absolute nightmare of a game in which he gave up 8 runs to the Twins  and could not complete the fourth inning. The good news is that Lance appears to be in good health and by all appearances should bounce back.

Gerrit Cole, who will start Game 3 for the Astros, has emerged in many ways as an early staff ace alongside Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton. Giving up just 3 earned runs and 4 walks over 21 innings pitched this year, Cole brings a ridiculously low WHIP of 0.67 to Seattle. His mound opponent, Mike Leake, has pitched solidly, earning two quality starts in his first 3 games this season. In 10 career starts and 2 relief appearances against Houston, Leake has managed a 3.29 ERA.

The final matchup between the two teams will see Charlie Morton take on Marco Gonzalez. A former St. Louis Cardinal, Gonzalez started a handful of games for Seattle last year, pitching to a 5.40 ERA, and has continued to struggle on the mound this year. After achieving a quality start against the Giants on April 3, he managed to only pitch into the third inning in his second start, and into the fourth inning in his mot recent start versus the Oakland Athletics. Charlie Morton comes off a tough-luck loss to the Texas Rangers in which he allowed only his first two runs off the year, each coming off a solo home run. In his two previous games, Morton held opponents scoreless, leading many to marvel at such strong performance for a #5 starter.

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Ken Giles will have a chance to show that he can, in fact, meet fans’ expectations of a big league closer

Battle of the Bullpens

The Texas Rangers managed to touch up Houston’s relief staff, still ranked as among the MLB’s best. Hector Rondon, who had held opponents scoreless in his first 6 appearances of the year, allowed two runs to the Rangers on April 15, and Brad Peacock allowed 3 late-inning runs in a gut-wrenching 6-5 loss to the Rangers the day before. Nonetheless, the Astros bullpen ERA of 2.88 is good for third place in the AL, right behind the Angels and Blue Jays. Collin McHugh has seen no game action for the past several days and will likely be used in Game 1 or Game 2 of this series. Also little-used in recent games, Ken Giles – who probably leads Astros relievers in terms of the extreme fan reactions he provokes – brings a FIP of only 2.26 to Seattle.

For the Mariners, Edwin Diaz leads the bullpen (and much of the AL) with a pristine record of seven scoreless innings over seven appearances this year. Also pitching well have been Chasen Bradford and Dan Altavilla. On the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski, Nick Vincent, and Juan Nicasio have struggled to start the season, falling victim especially hard to the home run ball.

Luckily, Seattle has a covered stadium for rainy days like today, so we should see the Astros and Mariners fall victim to the rash of postponements that has overtaken MLB in recent days. May the players from both sides play well and stay healthy, and Go Stros!