Kyle Tucker in the Right Place at the Right Time in Astros’ Game 2 Win

Kyle Tucker enjoyed a breakout season this year, bashing 30 homers and leading the Astros with a 147 wRC+. Yet he’s been hitting as low as seventh in Houston’s order in an attempt to maximize the number of runners on base ahead of him in one of the game’s deepest lineups, a strategy that Owen McGrattan examined late last month. In Game 2 of the Division Series against the White Sox on Friday, that strategy paid off handsomely, with the 24-year-old slugger driving in three runs that bookended the Astros’ scoring, as well as making a key defensive play, in a 9–4 victory that will send the Astros to Chicago with a chance to sweep.

Thursday’s series opener featured Houston quickly getting ahead and Lance McCullers Jr. holding Chicago scoreless on one hit over the first six innings en route to a 6-1 victory. By contrast, Friday’s game was a wild back-and-forth affair, featuring four lead changes in the first seven innings. The Astros broke it open with a five-run seventh that was keyed by a couple of managerial moves that backfired and capped by Tucker’s two-run shot into Minute Maid Field’s Crawford Boxes.

Starters Framber Valdez and Lucas Giolito both dealt with considerable traffic as they worked through the opposing lineups the first two times, but things quickly unraveled as each attempted a third pass. While both bullpens allowed inherited runners to score, the Astros kept the White Sox scoreless the rest of the way as their offense went to town for those five runs.

The White Sox struck quickly against Valdez, loading the bases in the first inning via one-out singles by Luis Robert and José Abreu, followed by Valdez grazing Yasmani Grandal’s right foot with a curveball. Eloy Jiménez then hit a 106.3-mph smash to second base; Jose Altuve got the force out, but Robert scored. Valdez escaped further damage by striking out Yoán Moncada on a curveball in the dirt — a plate appearance that made headlines for MLB Network broadcaster Jim Kaat’s racially insensitive suggestion to “get a 40-acre field full of” players that look like Moncada. Y-I-K-E-S.

Kaat later issued an on-air apology that wasn’t handled with particular care, either.

On the field, things quickly quieted down. Giolito struck out the top of the Astros’ order in the bottom of the first — no mean feat, given that Altuve, Michael Brantley, and Alex Bregman all ranked among the AL’s six toughest hitters to punch out in 2021, with rates of 13.4% or lower. Valdez answered by doing the same to the bottom of the White Sox’ order — Andrew Vaughn, Leury García, and Adam Engel — but that would be the last clean inning for either pitching staff for nearly two hours.

The Astros took the lead in the bottom of the second, waiting out Giolito by laying off the sliders he threw outside the zone. Yordan Alvarez worked a leadoff walk after getting a reprieve when Moncada failed to run down a pop-up in foul territory, skidding into the wall at high speed and staying down for a couple of minutes:

Alvarez took second on a force out, and after Carlos Correa walked, Tucker scorched a center-cut, 94-mph fastball through a wide opening to the left of second base, where shortstop Tim Anderson would have been playing if not for the shift. That scored Alvarez; Correa followed home on a sacrifice fly by Chas McCormick to give the Astros a 2–1 lead.

Supported by a defense that led the AL in Defensive Runs Saved (80) and Outs Above Average (43) and his own 70.3% ground-ball rate, the highest by a pitcher with at least 100 innings in a season since 2002, Valdez bent but didn’t break, at least for a few innings. The Sox put the first two batters of the third inning on when Anderson singled and Robert walked, but Valdez recovered to strike out Abreu with a diving curveball, then started a 1-4-3 double play on a Grandal chopper.

He got another double play in the fourth, an impressive unassisted one by Yuli Gurriel, who stopped a one-hopper by Moncada right at the foul line, stepped on first base for the force, and chased down Jiménez halfway to second base.

Valdez finished the frame by striking out Vaughn, his sixth K of the day. Through four innings, he had outpitched Giolito, who was laboring; the righty put two men on in the third and another in the fourth and needed 39 pitches to get through those two frames after throwing 38 in the previous two.

The third time through the order quickly spelled the end of the day for both pitchers. The White Sox broke through against Valdez with three singles in a span of four hitters, with Robert bringing home Garcia to tie the game, 2–2. Dusty Baker brought in righty Yimi García, who served up a go-ahead single to Abreu on a bloop over the head of Altuve, then threw a slider in the dirt that squirted past catcher Martín Maldonado, allowing both Abreu and Robert to advance. The latter scored on a sacrifice fly by Grandal, but the rally ended when Jiménez grounded out on a borderline slider.

Giolito proved no more able to get through the fifth than his counterpart, sandwiching a pair of walks to Altuve and Bregman — his fourth and fifth of the day, the latter running his pitch count to 90 — around a Brantley fly out. Tony La Russa brought in lefty Garrett Crochet to face Alvarez, not that the platoon advantage matters to the 24-year-old slugger, who owns a 153 wRC+ against lefties and a 153 wRC+ against righties. Crochet knitted him a walk (sorry), and Gurriel brought home Altuve and Bregman with a game-tying single to center. The White Sox escaped further damage thanks to a timely 5–3 double play by Moncada off the bat of Correa.

The top of the sixth and Astros righty reliever Phil Maton brought about the game’s first 1-2-3 inning since the second inning. It took until Houston batting in the bottom of the eighth against Liam Hendriks for there to be another, but by that point, the situation had changed considerably.

The seventh inning began with a 4–4 score and La Russa pinch-hitting César Hernández for Engel in order to gain the platoon advantage against righty Ryne Stanek — a strange-looking move given this year’s results against righties (Engel had a 154 wRC+ in 91 PA, Hernández was at 69 in 161 PA) but more justifiable via larger sample sizes. Hernandez struck out, as did Anderson, but with a Robert single and an Abreu walk, the White Sox had things cooking. Grandal connected on a high splitter, rocketing it toward the right-center gap … where Tucker ran it down and made a leaping catch for the final out.

The drive was hit with a 16-degree launch angle and an exit velocity of 101.8 mph, good for a .590 expected batting average. Tucker, a strong fielder by both DRS (+10) and OAA (+5), didn’t exactly make it look easy, but he did save a run and perhaps two.

That catch proved significant, as the Astros broke the game open in the bottom of the seventh against Aaron Bummer. Altuve and Bregman both singled, the latter on a ball that deflected off the pitcher. Alvarez singled up the middle to plate Altuve, and Craig Kimbrel — who struggled mightily in a setup role for the White Sox, with a 5.09 ERA and 4.56 FIP — came on. After Gurriel hit a soft liner to Garcia, who had moved from second base to right field with Hernández’s entry, Correa followed with a much harder shot at 106.1 mph. Garcia misjudged the ball, which sailed over his head and bounced off the wall to score two runs.

Statcast doesn’t publish route efficiency numbers anymore, but trust me, that’s what a -317% route efficiency looks like. Two pitches later, Kimbrel hung a knuckle-curve to Tucker, and that, for all intents and purposes, was the ballgame. Ryan Pressly and Kendall Graveman, the Astros’ fourth and fifth relievers of the day, each worked a scoreless frame to close out the game.

The win was a perfect demonstration of the depth of the Astros’ lineup. The top eight in the order all collected hits, with Bregman joining Tucker in doubling up. Five different Astros reached base multiple times, and five Astros — Alvarez, Gurriel, Correa, Tucker and McCormick — each drove in runs. It’s not as though the White Sox didn’t get hits; they had 11 to the Astros’ 10, but all of them were singles, and eight belonged to Anderson, Robert and Abreu, with the lineup’s bottom six going 3-for-22.

The series shifts to the South Side on Sunday, with the Astros sending Luis Garcia to the mound in an attempt to complete the sweep and the White Sox likely to counter with either Dylan Cease or Carlos Rodón. Whomever La Russa tabs, he’ll have to find more spots in the Astros’ lineup to get outs, or Chicago’s season will be over.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Fangraphs’ writers rating the White Sox as co-favorites to win the World Series aren’t looking too good here.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Hmm. The article showing the voting and readers’ criticisms of the high rating of the White Sox seems to have mysteriously disappeared.

Psychic... Powerless...
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Psychic... Powerless...

It was titled “Here’s Who’s Going to (Maybe) Win the 2021 World Series,” and it’s still up.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

I know, I read it. It’s definitely not on my page for the site.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Probably because it is too old now. It’s at the address
heres-whos-going-to-maybe-win-the-2021-world-series

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Meh, it’s fine. The White Sox are good and they don’t have to go through the Dodgers or the Giants to get to the World Series.

The predictions that look really bad are those who were dismissive of the Astros’ chances and also critical of picking the White Sox. I continue to think that people ripping on the White Sox still don’t quite get how good the Astros’ offense is.

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

The White Sox are by far the best team in baseball at padding their statistics by scoring meaningless runs. More than a quarter of their wins (24) are by 6 runs or more. No other team is even close to that. Fangraphs’ WAR counts garbage time runs equal to any other and so overrates the White Sox.

docgooden85
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docgooden85

As much as I want to disrespect A-Rod RBIs (he was famous for this thing where you hit a HR after your team is up 6 runs in the 8th)… Runs are runs and this is bad analysis. Context matters but it doesn’t defeat the prime directive of the game (score runs and prevent them from the other team).

johnforthegiants
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johnforthegiants

Runs scored in garbage time are scored against inferior pitching because managers are giving their good pitchers a rest. It makes no sense to value them as highly as runs scored in normal situations. Fangraphs doesn’t bother to consider quality of pitching in their statistical analysis but there’s no empirical argument for that. It’s just laziness.

Jason B
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Jason B

Predictions are not akin to “rating as co-favorites”. Thankfully the writers didn’t just mindlessly take the team favored to win each series (even if that was the most likely way to achieve the “correct” result), or we could have had 30 sets of predictions that were exactly the same. And totally boring, and not worthy to publish or discuss.