Astros offense breaks out to back Justin Verlander vs. Marlins

HOUSTON — Entering Sunday, the Astros had averaged 3.82 runs per game over Justin Verlander’s first 11 starts. If extrapolated to the full 2022 season, that number would rank fourth-worst in baseball.

The Astros still won 8 of those 11 games, thanks largely to the Cy Young-level brilliance of their veteran ace. But the lack of run support was an even more pronounced version of their season-long trend. Now, in mid-June, the tide might be turning.

In Sunday afternoon’s 9-4 victory over the Marlins at Minute Maid Park, Verlander was less dominant than usual. While he did earn his MLB-best eighth win and didn’t allow any earned runs — errors by middle infielders Jeremy Peña and Jose Altuve kept Miami’s four-run seventh inning going longer than it should have — Verlander struck out only five batters, and he surrendered a three-run homer to Bryan De La Cruz that brought the Marlins to within 1.

Yet, thanks to Houston’s offense, those four runs weren’t enough for Miami (27-31) to rally — and especially not after the Astros (37-23) matched that four-spot an inning later. The win snapped a three-game skid for Houston, which finally saw its offense do the heavy lifting.

“I’m happy that we ended this losing streak, because sometimes it can take on a life of its own and turn into a monster,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “It was a big monkey off our backs.” 

“When one of these streaks inevitably happens throughout the season — it always does — if and when it falls on your shoulders, you hope you’re the guy who’s able to stop it,” Verlander said. “I wouldn’t say it was all me today by any standard, but we were able to get it done.”

After scoring one run Saturday and going 3-for-29 in the previous two games with runners in scoring position (RISP), many recently maligned names sprung back to life. 

Altuve, who entered hitting .225 over his last 12 games, had a tone-setting leadoff double on Sunday’s first pitch and a game-sealing three-run homer in the eighth off a 2-2 fastball from Marlins reliever Louis Head. 

“It’s always good to go to the eighth and ninth with a four-run lead instead of a one-run lead,” Altuve said.

Peña emerged from the first slump of his young Major League career with a 2-for-3 day, headlined by a two-run blast off Marlins starter Edward Cabrera. The talented right-hander entered with a 2-0 record and a 0.75 ERA, but Peña jumped a first-pitch curveball and pulled it into the Crawford Boxes.

“Baseball is a daily game,” Baker said of Peña. “You’re one at-bat away from a hot streak. He’s a tremendous talent and a level-headed young man. You can’t really tell if he’s high or low, which is going to help him in the long run. His even-keeled-ness will keep him consistent.”

Later in the fourth, Yordan Alvarez reversed Houston’s RISP trend by lining a two-out RBI single. Alvarez, who leads the Astros with a .311 average and 1.030 OPS, matched Altuve with three hits. 

Veteran infielders Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, who have underperformed compared to their usual production in 2022, also showed promising signs. Bregman reached base three times in five plate appearances with a double, while Gurriel had a double and a walk in four appearances.

“I swung the bat really well today,” said Bregman, who “missed a homer by a few inches” (instead it went foul) before working a walk. “It was a good day at the yard.”

It’s not as if the Astros were panicking. Houston’s lineup is loaded with established track records from the defending American League champions, and Baker insisted pregame that a breakout was coming. They own an 8 1/2-game lead in the AL West, and Baker does not recall having such a large lead in June at any point in his storied career.

Yet, Houston’s lead over the AL Central-leading Twins for the AL’s No. 2 seed — which means a bye into the Division Series — had slipped to two games on Saturday. As the Astros head to Arlington for a new series starting Monday, they want to build on a strong finish to an otherwise underwhelming 2-4 homestand.

“I think what we saw today is the kind of guys they are,” Altuve said of Houston’s veterans. “We have, like, four [more] months to keep playing baseball. If we keep going, one game at a time, I know that in the end, as a team, we’re going to have a good season. And as individuals, they’re going to have a good season. I’m not worried at all about Yuli and Alex.” 

“We are a winning team, and we find a way to win games,” Altuve said. “If we control what we can control, everything is going to be good.”

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