The Houston Astros clobbered two solo home runs Thursday afternoon at Minute Maid Park. The Angels hit one, so the Astros won, 2-1. Occasionally, baseball is a simple game.
Right-handers Matt Shoemaker and Lance McCullers dueled. The Astros' McCullers throws far harder, but each man wields an elite secondary pitch with which he can strike out the opposition.
The Angels' Shoemaker almost always aims low with that pitch, his splitter. When he's succeeding, he's hitting that target. But he will always be susceptible to the occasional home run, because when the pitch ends up higher than he hoped, it's hittable.
In Thursday's first inning, the Astros' Carlos Beltran timed a hanging splitter and launched it into the right-field seats, the 24th home run hit against the Angels so far this season.
In the second inning, an Alex Bregman drive to right landed in and bounced out of Kole Calhoun's glove. It was ruled a double. Shoemaker next walked Evan Gattis and allowed both baserunners to move up because of a wild pitch, but he tantalized Marwin Gonzalez into a strikeout on a splitter outside, and induced an inning-ending groundout from Jake Marisnick.
In the fifth, Gonzalez slammed a ball 395 feet to center field, deep but not deep enough. Mike Trout caught it a few feet short of the wall. But Shoemaker's next pitch was a 90-mph fastball over the middle, and Marisnick crushed it some 440 feet to left field. The 25th home run against the Angels put them alone in the majors lead — ahead of tanking San Diego — for at least the afternoon.
"They ran into a couple, but that's going to happen," Shoemaker said. "My game is to be aggressive. When we're successful, that's the plan. Overall, we executed well today. I'm definitely pleased, but I still want to do better."
Brandishing a tight slider, McCullers carried a no-hitter through four innings. Even afterward, the Angels' successes were tinged with failure.
"We're having chances at the plate with guys on base," Trout said. "We're just not capitalizing."
Andrelton Simmons shot McCullers' first pitch of the fifth into left for a single, but was soon caught in a pickle between first and second base and tagged out. In the sixth, the Angels had two singles, but Yunel Escobar grounded into a double play, and they produced nothing.
"He's tough to pick up," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said of McCullers. "We had a couple chances, but not a lot. He's pitched us tough in this park. We just haven't figured him out yet."
Indeed, over the last three seasons, McCullers has a 1.57 earned-run average against the Angels over 34 1/3 innings in five starts.
When McCullers issued a pair of two-out walks in the seventh, Astros manager A.J. Hinch pulled him. Hinch went with right-hander Chris Devenski, a Cal State Fullerton product who has increasingly dominated in long-relief appearances.
He struck out Danny Espinosa to end the imminent threat, and handled the remaining two innings. The eighth was a breeze. The ninth was not. Trout led off with a homer on an 0-and-2 changeup, and C.J. Cron and Simmons both singled after Albert Pujols flied out.
On a 2-and-1 pitch to Cameron Maybin, pinch-runner Cliff Pennington and Simmons executed a double steal. Maybin fouled off a fastball, then struck out on a darting changeup.
Up came Espinosa, needing only a single to tie the game and potentially push the Angels ahead. He struck out.
"We got ourselves into position, had the go-ahead run at second," Scioscia said. "He pitched out of a little bit of trouble. But we got some good looks at him in the ninth inning. Give him credit: He made some good pitches to get out of it."
With one win in seven tries on the road trip, and seven wins in 17 tries this season, the Angels flew home for a four-game series against similarly struggling Toronto. They did permit only 12 runs in four games against Houston, and they're insistent that, at least, that successful pitching provides confidence for the future.
"Obviously, this was a rough trip for us," Scioscia said. "One of the things that are important started to materialize, and that's starting pitching getting to a certain point in the game. That has to happen if we're going to do what we hope to do, and it's good to see."