Given his penchant for aggression early in counts, it came as no surprise when Houston second baseman Jose Altuve hacked at the first pitch he saw from Oakland left-hander Ken Waldichuk leading off the bottom of the first inning Friday.
In truth, the result of that at-bat or the ones that followed didn’t matter.
After missing the first 43 games of the season with a right thumb fracture suffered in the World Baseball Classic, the Astros were simply thrilled to have Altuve back atop their lineup. Altuve finished 0-for-4 with a walk, including a groundout in his first plate appearance, in the Astros’ 5-1 victory over visiting Oakland.
Three Astros occupied the top spot in the order with Altuve sidelined: Mauricio Dubon, Jeremy Pena and Chas McCormick. Each brought something to the job, but none could replace Altuve, whose combination of power and speed serves as the primary ignition for the Astros’ offense.
With Altuve back in the fold, the expectation is for the Astros to regain their stride offensively. It might take some time for Altuve to reclaim his footing, but getting him back was a key first step.
“It was great,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of seeing Altuve in the field. “Everybody was pleased. You figured he’d be a little rusty, but that rust will subside and come off of him the more at-bats he’ll have and the more he plays.”
Rookie right-hander Hunter Brown (4-1, 3.43 ERA) has the starting assignment for the Astros on Saturday.
He allowed three runs on seven hits and one walk, and he recorded a career-high eight strikeouts over 5 2/3 innings while earning a 4-3 victory Sunday over the Chicago White Sox. Brown ranks first among American League rookies in ERA, opponent batting average (.253) and wins.
Brown will make his first career appearance against the Athletics.
Left-hander JP Sears (0-3, 5.27 ERA) will make the start for Oakland in the middle game of the series.
He did not factor into the decision in his last start after allowing three runs (two earned) on five hits and one walk with six strikeouts over 5 1/3 innings in the Athletics’ 11-3 loss Sunday to the Texas Rangers.
He’s winless over his last 10 appearances dating back to Sept. 25, 2022, going 0-4 with a 5.33 ERA in that span. Sears was 6-2 with a 3.58 ERA over his first 24 career outings. He’s 0-3 with a 7.84 ERA in four road starts this season.
Sears made his lone career appearance against the Astros on July 21, 2022, allowing two runs on one hit with one strikeout over three innings while pitching for the New York Yankees. He did not factor into the decision of that 7-5 loss in what was his final appearance with the Yankees.
While a throwing error by veteran shortstop Aledmys Diaz opened the door for the Astros to score their first run Friday, a sparkling diving grab by left fielder JJ Bleday set the tone defensively for the Athletics.
Bleday made his grab with the bases loaded and two outs in the fourth inning, robbing Martin Maldonado of an extra-base hit that likely would have cleared the bases in a one-run game.
“It’s a focus for us,” Athletics manager Mark Kotsay said of the defense. “We had one blemish tonight with the throw that (Ryan) Noda tried to stay on the bag that cost us a run in the second, but we’ll continue to work and continue to grind.”
— Field Level Media