Angels left-hander Jose Suarez knew the instant his letters-high fastball made contact with Jose Altuve’s bat that he was toast. The pitch sailed straight, failing to drop out of Altuve’s hot zone. Altuve barreled it, the sound of impact piercing the air at Angel Stadium.
Suarez finished his release and growled. Soon, the Houston Astros would mount a rally on their way to a 6-3 victory over the Angels. The Astros’ 106th victory clinched home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Altuve’s home run and the sixth-pitch walk that preceded it were the only asterisks attached to an otherwise encouraging performance from the 21-year-old Suarez in the Angels’ loss Saturday night.
For the first five innings, Suarez looked nothing like the rookie who had been pummeled in nearly every start he made this season. Suarez gave up only three hits, the fewest he had given up in an outing that lasted more than four innings.
“That’s as good as Suarez pitched all year,” manager Brad Ausmus said.
The last hit was crushing. As Altuve trotted around the bases, Suarez stood over the mound with his gaze trained on the dirt. It was the 23rd time in only 81 innings that he had watched an opponent put a baseball over the fence. He didn’t need another visual.
“I wanted that fastball [to Altuve] higher,” Suarez said in Spanish. “He saw the mistake because he was sitting fastball.”
Somewhere along the way, Suarez lost touch with what helped him rocket through the minor leagues a season ago. Tweaks suggested by first-year pitching coach Doug White confounded him. Suarez struggled to assimilate at the major league level, leading to the grotesque 7.11 earned-run average with which he departed the 19th and final appearance of his rookie season.
It wasn’t until last Sunday in Houston, when he gave up one run in two innings of relief, that Suarez felt comfortable on the mound again.
Suarez was able to carry that feeling over to Saturday. He coasted through the Astros’ robust lineup, which entered the game with the major leagues’ best on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.847) and lowest amount of strikeouts (1,150), and retired the nine batters he faced in the first three innings. He struck out four in that span.
Even after Altuve broke up the no-hit bid with a one-out single in the fourth inning, Suarez remained in control. He stranded Altuve and stranded two the next inning to keep his pitch count at 75 through five innings.
It was only when Ausmus slackened his rope and allowed Suarez to face the top of the Astros’ lineup a third time that Suarez lost his edge.
“That was actually a very good outing,” Ausmus said. “He was efficient. He threw up zeroes for the first five innings. In the sixth, he gave up a couple. I was a little torn. I wanted him to end on a good note, but I wanted him to keep pitching. After the Altuve two-run homer, it was time to get him out so he could go into the offseason feeling good about his last outing.”
Luke Bard (3-3), who had retired 23 batters in a row over five appearances since Sept. 13, gave up a three-run home run soon after.
The Angels’ offense mustered nothing to pick Bard up. The team was held to one hit after the fourth inning, undone by the late mastery of Cy Young award contender Justin Verlander (21-6).
The Angels, who are the third-toughest team to strikeout in baseball, gave Verlander all fits season. He allowed 10 earned runs over his previous three starts against the Angels while only striking out 18.
But the 36-year-old earned his third victory over the Angels anyway. After Brian Goodwin’s first-inning home run gave the Angels a 1-0 lead, Verlander struck out at least two per frame from the second to fifth innings. He also retired six of the final nine batters he faced via strikeout after Andrelton Simmons knocked a two-run homer to give the Angels a 3-0 cushion in the fourth.
Verlander, who reached his 3,000th career strikeout when he induced a whiff from Kole Calhoun on a wild pitch that put Calhoun on base in front of Simmons, fanned 12 Angels over six innings to put the final touches on a close awards race. Calhoun had the dubious honor of being both Verlander’s 3,000th strikeout victim and 300th victim of the season.
“I honestly wrote off 300,” Verlander said. “I thought it was going to be a lot to ask for since these guys don’t strike out much. … I had more emotion for 300 than 3,000 because I didn’t expect to get there in this game.”
Astros starter Gerrit Cole, who has 316 strikeouts and holds a slight lead over Verlander in the AL race with a 2.52 ERA, will get a chance to bolster his award case in Sunday’s series finale while the Angels attempt to avoid losing 90 games for the first time since 1999.