A roller coaster of a first half has come to a close for the Houston Astros. After stumbling to a 7-17 record in April, they have surged back and put themselves in good position as the playoff push slowly heats up. The top of their order, which features All-Star starter Jose Altuve and honorable mentions Carlos Correa and George Springer, has lit the flame all season, but in the final series before the All-Star break, it was the supporting cast coming through against the Oakland Athletics.
The series ended in a split, which felt like a gift to Houston, which easily could have been swept. The Astros trailed entering the bottom of the ninth all four times, but mustered two walk-off wins, one of which came in extra innings.
Rich Hill allowed just one run on three hits over six innings in Thursday's series opener, which Oakland took 3-1. Yonder Alonso's RBI double in the second gave the A's a 2-1 lead, and that score held up until the ninth, when Alonso drove in another with an infield single.
Oakland grabbed a 3-0 advantage in the top of the fourth Friday, only to surrender a two-run shot to Correa in the fourth and four more runs in the fifth. The Astros took a 7-4 lead into the top of the ninth and sent the previously invincible Will Harris to the mound. Harris, who has been putting nails in the coffin all season, misplaced his proverbial hammer, leading to perhaps the wildest ninth inning all season. He quickly allowed a Billy Butler double and an Alonso homer that brought it to 7-6. After Marcus Semien struck out, Jake Smolinski's single and Jed Lowrie's double chased Harris from the game, but Michael Feliz was no better. Khris Davis roped ago-ahead, two-run double to left center field and then scored on a J.J. Redick single. The A's could not hang on to the 9-7 lead, however. With one out and Altuve on second, Correa swung and missed at a Ryan Madson curveball that bounced several feet in front of the plate, but the third strike whizzed past the catcher and to the backstop, allowing Correa to reach first. Luis Valbuena followed with this.
The A's rebounded on Saturday, though, thanks to Kendall Graveman's eight shutout innings. Stephen Vogt had a pair of RBIs and the score was 3-0 in the ninth. Houston scratched two runs across in the ninth, both of which were charged to Graveman, but it wasn't enough. The Astros also trailed 1-0 entering their final at-bat Sunday, but Evan Gattis tied things up with a double in the ninth, and Danny Valencia's error in the tenth allowed Jake Marisnick to waltz in with the winning run.
19 runs were scored in Friday's game, and just 12 runs were scored in the series' other three games. Even better, 8 of those 19 runs came in the ninth, which gives us one of the coolest win probability graphs of the season (per Fangraphs).
Will Harris allowed four earned runs while recording just one out in the top of that ninth inning. He had allowed three earned runs in 37.2 innings before that. The All-Star's ERA spiked from 0.72 to 1.66 (which, yes, is still outstanding). We should probably note that he returned to form Saturday, hurling a scoreless frame and lowering the ERA to 1.62, and will probably be used in Tuesday's All-Star Game, the first of his career.
Dallas Keuchel started last year's midsummer classic, but his 2016 campaign has been a resounding dissapointment. The lefty's ERA currently sits at 4.80 and has climbed as high as 5.92; last year, it never rose above 2.56. But the reigning Cy Young Award winner pitched seven innings of one-run ball Sunday, and although he won't be returning to the All-Star game, he will be just as important to the team's second-half success or failure as any other player.
On the other side, Alonso had an uncharacteristically torrid series at the plate. He went 5-for-14 with a homer and five RBIs, which is far removed from everything else he's done this season. In 86 games, the first baseman has been hitting just .251 with four long balls and 36 driven in, which is relatively putrid for first base (his career averages aren't much better).
It's been a rough year for Oakland (38-51, 15.5 games out of first place), but at least the fans have Daniel Mengden's mustache as viewing pleasure.