The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Another Astros NL pennant would go a long way to restoring image

The Houston Astros entered the 2020 season under the cloud of the sign-stealing scandal over the winter. From a public relations standpoint, the team had alienated itself with opposing players and the fans. The franchise’s integrity and the players’ reputations were under scrutiny by the media and the baseball community in general. As spring training approached, everyone was wondering how the Astros players, new manager Dusty Baker, and the front office would handle the fallout. They were compelled to show they could win without cheating.


By mid-March MLB decided to cancel the remainder of spring training due to the national emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. If there was any bright side to the pandemic for the Astros, the break in the season allowed them, to a large degree, to avoid dealing with the media and the fans. In a strange way, the 4 ½ months away from the diamond was fortuitous, because the Astros’ regular season was not one of their best, compared to what we have come to expect.


The Astros finished below .500 for the first time since 2014. It was a frustrating season for the team and its players, but it would have been worse without the interruption of the season. The pandemic diffused what would likely have been a toxic situation for the team. Astros players largely avoided the heckling by opposing fans the and the agitation by the media, who were unable to attend the games and have direct contact with the team. There could have been more incidents on the field like the bench-clearing with the Los Angeles Dodgers when Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly threw pitches at the heads of Astros batters and made a demonstrative pouty face at Carlos Correa, as a show of disrespect for the Astros.


After the first three weeks, the Astros’ record was 7-10, giving ammunition to their detractors’ ill feelings about the team. But then they went on to win 14 of 19 games They finished second to the Oakland A’s in their division, winding up with a losing record, 29-31.


The team’s performance was plagued by the absence of several key players from the year before, in addition to slumping bats that never got on track in the abbreviated season. First, they lost Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole to free agency over the winter, and then lost Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery after only one start this year. Their rookie sensation from 2019, outfielder/DH Yordan Alvarez, played in only two games before getting injured and missing the rest of the season. Outfielder Jake Marisnick had been traded to the New York Mets, while catcher Robinson Chirinos went to the Texas Rangers in free agency.


The Astros were below the league average in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The only batter to hit .300 was Michael Brantley. The usually reliable Jose Altuve had the worst season of his career. 23-year-old Kyle Tucker, who finally broke into the regular lineup after being their top prospect in the two preceding seasons, turned out to be one of the best players on the team, along with George Springer.


Veteran Zach Greinke was still available on the starting pitching staff, but it was a corps of relative “no-names” that stepped up to help fill the gap in the pitching staff. 23-year-old rookie Cristian Javier was the best in the rotation. Jose Urquidy, a late-season surprise last year, missed the first half of the season, but then rebounded well in September. Relatively inexperienced as a starter, Framber Valdez also pitched admirably in the rotation.


Without an expanded playoff system this year, the Astros would not be in the post-season. They wound up as the sixth-seed going into the American League Wild Card Series, an underdog in facing the Minnesota Twins in the first round. However, behind the arms of their young pitching staff and Grienke, a decisive sweep of the Twins advanced them to the Division Championship Series against the A’s.


The Astros have lots of incentive to show the baseball world they can indeed be a championship team without the stigma of sign-stealing. Their reputation is at stake. It would be a huge vindication for the players to get back to the World Series. The Astros aren’t going away lightly, as they showed in their first test against the Twins.


It’s somewhat ironic the Astros will face Oakland in the next round. The A’s best pitcher, Mike Fiers, played for the Astros during the 2017 season in which the sign-stealing occurred, and after he left the team he turned out to be the snitch who squealed to the media about the Astros’ sign-stealing tactics. Most baseball observers see him as the main reason why the whole scandal came to light. As you might expect, Astros players have no love for Fiers. In fact, they would love nothing better than to chase him from the game in the first inning.


Regardless of how the Astros make out for the rest of the season, should the baseball community, including the fans, opposing players, and media just move on, with respect to how the Astros are viewed? It’s not likely, but a National League pennant would sure help.

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