Houston Astros continue to struggle with runners in scoring position

His fourth-inning bunt helped to signal the state of Houston’s offense, but nothing better accentuated the Astros’ malaise than Martín Maldonado’s eighth-inning double.

Maldonado is not on this team to hit. Houston constructed its roster with far more accomplished offensive players to allow its veteran catcher the luxury of defending and leading — two of Maldonado’s best traits. Nights he does deliver a few hits should be savored. The Astros should seize some advantage.

The double gave him a multi-hit game — only the third of his first 43 starts. He struck Cole Sulser’s fourth pitch of the frame off the left-field scoreboard, scurried into second base and began to celebrate toward the dugout. The top of Houston’s order loomed for another opportunity on an evening full of them.

Entering the game, Houston had taken 87 plate appearances with a runner on second base and no outs. The lineup advanced the runner during 35 of them, a rate of 40.2 percent. Only the Marlins, Friday’s opponent, had a lower one. The major league average is 50.3 percent. Jose Altuve arrived with a chance to change the trajectory. Sulser struck him out with a wicked changeup to continue it.

“Passing the baton” has been a hallmark of the Astros’ offensive approach across the past six seasons. The saying seems trite until the lineup functions at its potential. Houston has made a habit of exhausting pitchers and stringing together wonderful plate appearances.

Fifty-eight games into this season, consider the baton dropped. The Astros’ best habit has disappeared and their run production is plummeting. Games they once broke open are now nailbiters. Four runs feels like the maximum for an offense failing to reach anything resembling its potential. Friday’s 7-4 loss lowered their average to 4.10 runs per game. The major league average is 4.33.

“I just feel that we’re right around the corner from scoring a lot of runs for a long time,” manager Dusty Baker said. “The name of the game is opportunities first and pick them up second. We accomplished one of the goals and we are swinging better. Now we have to pick them up.”

Maldonado did not move from second base. Michael Brantley flew out to left field before Sulser struck out Alex Bregman. Houston took 22 at-bats with runners on base during the 7-4 loss. The lineup finished with more strikeouts (6) than hits (5). All five of the hits were singles.

The Astros are now hitting .227 with runners on base. Only the Baltimore Orioles and Arizona Diamondbacks have a lower batting average. A 2-for-16 showing with runners in scoring position left their season average at .238 along with a .710 OPS. The figures rank 19th and 20th, respectively, league-wide.

The frustration is forcing borderline reckless baserunning decisions to inspire action. Altuve got thrown out twice at home plate on aggressive sends during the team’s last series against Seattle.

On Friday, Yordan Alvarez tried to stretch a first-inning single into a double. He slid ahead of Jorge Soler’s throw and under Jazz Chisholm Jr.’s tag, but popped up in his slide and vacated the base. Chisholm kept the tag on him to squelch any hope of a rally.

The Astros have made 23 outs on the bases this season. Only the Tampa Bay Rays have more. Aggression has been a hallmark of the team’s renaissance, but lineups of old were able to mask the mistakes that manifested. Baker defended Alvarez’s decision on Friday, but lamented the split second that Alvarez popped up from the base. Therein lies the team’s thin margin for error.

“I don’t know if they’re pressing, but everyone wants to be the guy to do the job,” Baker said. “There’s a difference between pressing and trying too hard. There’s such a thing as trying too hard. That’s not necessarily pressing. When you’re trying too hard as a whole, you end up swinging at pitches you wouldn’t normally swing at. The main thing is, we have to relax and realize the (pitcher) is in trouble and not us.”

The lineup’s struggles are confounding. Much of what has made the Astros a formidable offense remains — players, tendencies and trends. The team lost Carlos Correa in free agency, but returned a reigning American League batting champion and third baseman that three years ago finished runner-up in AL MVP voting.

After Friday’s game, Bregman and Yuli Gurriel each boasted an identical .219 batting average. Bregman stranded five baserunners. Gurriel grounded out to strand a runner in scoring position during the fifth. He’s now 7-for-48 this season with runners in scoring position. Baker has dropped him to sixth in the batting order in hopes Alvarez and Kyle Tucker can take some of those chances from him.

Houston is chasing outside the strike zone just 27.3 percent of the time — major league average is 28.6 — and the lineup has the fourth-lowest whiff rate in baseball. Houston did bring a .263 batting average on balls in play into Friday’s game. Only Arizona had a lower one. The major league average is .288.

“The good sign is we had opportunities and we’re swinging it better,” Baker said. “I just think maybe some of the guys are trying too hard in those situations because we had a number of opportunities. If we keep putting them out there, we’re going to pick them up.

Baker is correct: Houston took plenty of encouraging at-bats on Friday, especially after Marlins starter Pablo Lopez exited with a fifth-inning injury. Five Marlins relievers teamed to surrender five hits and issue three walks. The Astros scored twice against them — and one of them arrived on a solo home run.

That the bullpen had a five-run lead to protect is an indictment on the Astros’ shortcomings. They had eight baserunners against Lopez in the 4 ⅓ innings he worked. Two scored.

Gurriel started the fourth with a ringing double. Rookie Jeremy Peña followed with a flyout, but it did advance Gurriel to third base. Houston trailed by one run. Miami brought its infield in to cut down the tying run.

Putting the ball in play is one of the Astros’ foremost priorities as an offense. Maldonado is not adept at doing it. He strikes out during 31.7 percent of his at-bats. He punched out to strand two runners in scoring position during the second. Chas McCormick had just punched out before him with the infield drawn in during the fourth.

Miami moved it back when Maldonado followed. He is the slowest man in baseball, according to Baseball Savant’s sprint speed metric. With two outs, a bunt seemed the last thing he should do. The tepid state of his lineup forced it. The decision is wholly defensible, but dreadfully executed. He bunted the baseball too hard and straight to third baseman Jon Berti.

Maldonado raced down the line, but could not beat the throw. Gurriel touched home plate anyway. The scoreboard did not change.

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