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The Monday Takeaway

For the first time in 2017, a winning streak has gone to 11. The Astros steamrolled the Royals on Monday night, jumping out to a healthy early lead, holding on through the middle innings, and delivering a knockout punch in the ninth—this time, as it happened, a three-run Yulieski Gurriel home run that screamed out to left field.

That’s been the formula for Houston over this stretch, insofar as there’s been one. Six different starters have taken the ball over these 11 games, and they’ve done basically what they’ve done all season: enough to let the offense and the bullpen carry the team to victory. The streak started with Dallas Keuchel on the disabled list, and right after Charlie Morton was forced to join him there, and it’s continued even as Joe Musgrove has taken Keuchel’s place on the shelf.

In this day and age, winning streaks are not just random clusters of outcomes, but testaments to team depth. Most teams experience some turnover in their rotation every few weeks. Most want or need to rest a key position player at least once a week, All teams rely on their pool of high-leverage relievers to secure victories when they have late leads. That means that in order to win a bunch of games in a row, you’ll usually need a sixth starter as good or better than your opponents’ fourth or fifth; a strong bench (rare enough on its own, these days); and at least four or five quality bullpen arms, rather than two guys who figure just to get the final six outs 65 times per year.

Over the weekend, the Astros’ three most trusted relievers—Chris Devenski, Ken Giles, and Luke Gregerson—threw 40, 38, and 35 pitches, respectively. That’s the cost of a sweep over a tough division rival, and it led manager A.J. Hinch to try to get as much out of Mike Fiers as he could. After Fiers faltered in the sixth inning, though, Hinch gingerly managed the team through two innings with the combination of Reymin Guduan and James Hoyt, then handed the ball to Will Harris for the Royals’ half of the eighth, with Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, and Mike Moustakas due. Harris allowed just a double in a solid inning, and after the Astros broke it open, Michael Feliz got to finish off the easy win.

It all looks inconsequential, next to the seven runs, but all three of those middle relievers mark the Astros as a unique team. Guduan caught Brandon Moss looking with runners on the corners and one out in the sixth, on a 95 mph fastball. Hoyt finished the job of escaping that jam by whiffing Alcides Escobar, and got through the top of the Kansas City order in the following frame, despite allowing a homer to Jorge Bonifacio. When most teams need five high-leverage outs in the middle innings from their two worst relievers, they lose, because they don’t have guys with stuff quite as good. Then, when the meat of the opposing order comes up in the eighth and the top three late-inning arms are down, most teams don’t have someone of Harris’ track record or general talent to step in.

All of that said, the Astros have allowed a hair under 3.6 runs per game during this streak—almost exactly what they were giving up for the year before the streak began. The streak has largely happened because they’ve gone from scoring just under five runs per game to scoring eight per game. It’s great to be deep, but it’s even better to go deep.

Quick Hits

The Cubs have won four in a row since coming home from their nightmarish West Coast road trip, and are back in first place in the NL Central. On Monday night, Eddie Butler got 17 outs, and Joe Maddon then asked Mike Montgomery to get the final 10—which he did, without allowing a run. It was his fourth relief appearance of at least three innings, and the second time in as many weeks that he’s come in behind Butler and pitched the rest of the way for the save. Montgomery is on pace to top 100 innings, as a pure reliever, something we haven’t seen in a decade or more.

Montgomery’s numbers look weird; he’s still feeling out his repertoire in relief, and sometimes lacks command. When he’s on, though, he’s extremely effective, and spin rate helps tell the story. Some 44 left-handed pitchers have thrown at least 200 four-seam fastballs this year. Montgomery’s, at 1,901 RPM, has the lowest average spin rate. Of the 32 southpaws who have thrown at least 50 curveballs this year, however, Montgomery ranks 16th in spin rate, at 2,421 RPM.

That’s unusual. Spin rates on the two offerings aren’t terribly strongly correlated, but most guys take up similar spots on each list. Kevin Siegrist, Jose Quintana, and Wei-Yin Chen are all low-spin fastball, low-spin curve guys. Jaime Garcia is high-spin for each offering. Montgomery’s fastball and curve might play unusually well off of one another, simply because of the unusual relationship between them in this regard. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s a four-pitch reliever, too, with both his changeup and his cutter helping create weak contact.)

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Speaking of high-spin curveballs, Gio Gonzalez threw his for strikes in Los Angeles on Monday night, and put together a strong start in what still figures to be a playoff preview. With swing-changer Chris Taylor, a healthy Logan Forsythe, and the chutzpah to platoon Adrian Gonzalez, manager Dave Roberts has found a way to field a much tougher lineup for opposing lefties of late. Gonzalez kept them in the park, though, and gave up just one really hard-hit ball (an RBI double by Taylor in the fifth frame). The changeup has become his out pitch, and it really worked for him on Monday night. He threw 24 of them, and got five whiffs, plus six called strikes. Three of his five punchouts came on the change.

The Nationals’ bullpen remains a constant topic of conversation, but without any further help from the offense, they made the lead stand up. They had a 5.70 ERA in April, but a 3.93 mark in May, and the latter figure feels more like their true talent level.

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It’ll take a few more years of bad breaks and bad baseball before anyone is whooping up a chorus of “Sympathy for the Devil Magic,” but the way the Cardinals are losing games lately is hard to watch. The Astros’ formula during their winning streak, remember, has been to build early leads, hang onto them loosely, then kick their opponents in the teeth in the late innings and head home. The Cardinals’ twist on this has been to get that early lead, but then sit uneasily on it, allow their opponent to tie things up, and then cough up any chance to regain control.

On Monday night, they made two crucial outs on the bases (more because of Adam Duvall’s brilliant throws than through any particular Cardinal fault, but a TOOTBLAN is a TOOTBLAN) to truncate promising rallies.

Carlos Martinez was on the mound for the Cardinals, so despite their missed opportunities to widen the lead, they probably felt good about their 2-0 advantage at the seventh-inning stretch. Truthfully, though, Martinez wasn’t his best self Monday night. It just took a little while for that to shine through. Here’s his pitch chart from last Wednesday, when he was masterful in a Cardinals win over the Dodgers:

And here he is in Cincinnati last night:

He was missing up more often Monday, and the Reds finally made that hurt in the seventh inning. Billy Hamilton led off with an innocuous bunt single, but Zack Cozart then punched a 3-1 sinker into left field, a pitch meant to be knee-high that was just a bit higher than that. Then Martinez lost Joey Votto on a non-competitive 3-2 slider (missing high and outside to Votto, where his misses increasingly went as the night progressed), and when he left another sinker just a little too high to Eugenio Suarez, the Reds’ third baseman made him pay, tying the game 2-2 with a double to center field.

Obviously, while that’s a hard-hit ball and well-earned hit, it also found Dexter Fowler’s glove for a moment. Thus continues another theme of recent Cardinals losses: defensive letdowns. The Cardinals’ overall defensive work this season has been improved, but their lapses seem to come at terrible times, and they rarely turn a rocket into an unlikely out: only the Mets and Brewers have a lower Defensive Efficiency on line drives this year. Indeed, though that looked like a tough play, Fowler probably should have made it.

That set up a Scooter Gennett double off Kevin Siegrist, whose idea of an original twist on the reverse-split lefty is to not be able to get any lefties out, to give Cincinnati a two-run lead. The Reds then brought on Michael Lorenzen and Raisel Iglesias for single innings each, If you’ve been holding out hope that those two would continue to be used creatively, as they were in 2016 and in April of this year, ratchet down your expectations. Iglesias got at least five outs in five of his nine April appearances, but has only gone past three one time since then. Lorenzen’s average Leverage Index over the last four weeks is under 1.00, as he’s being turned into some hideous cross between a traditional setup man and a mop-up arm.

On the bright side, both guys throw absolute gas in one-inning bursts, as Iglesias demonstrated Monday night.

He’s never thrown harder than he did on Monday night. If he can find just half a tick more in the tank somewhere, he’ll hit 100 miles per hour. (The Cardinals had no chance against him, particularly because he had his drop-down slider working nicely, running the pitch off the plate away from righties and inducing weak, hopeless swings.)

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Ryon Healy can’t stop, and also, he won’t stop.

Healy didn’t even get a fourth plate appearance in the game, which Oakland won 5-2, so he got to 60 career extra-base hits in 506 plate appearances. According to Play Index, if he keeps this up, he’ll be just the 18th player ever to have an extra-base hit at least every nine plate appearances through two seasons. (That he probably won’t keep it up, and that the other 17 guys didn’t play Happy Homer Hoppy Ball the way Healy gets to, can be overlooked for now.)

Defensive Play of the Day

Brett Phillips (already famous for his laugh and his unbelievably endearing boyish awkwardness) made his debut with the Brewers on Monday night, and while his mechanics on this play were a little (endearingly, boyishly) awkward, it was a fun way to kick off a career.

Phillips feels like the lost man in the Brewers’ crowded outfield picture, assuming Ryan Braun is around for the long haul. Still, he has a big-league future somewhere.

What to Watch on Tuesday

The Astros get the Royals again, tonight, so they have a decent shot at making it 12 wins in a row. David Paulino struggled a bit in Triple-A this spring, but he elevated his fastball effectively and threw his slider for strikes when he needed to in Minnesota last week. There’s no permanent spot in the rotation for him right now, but he can do himself and the club a kindness by showcasing himself for potential trade partners, and he might even have a chance to carve out a full-time role in the bullpen.

In Tampa Bay, there’s a fascinating pitching matchup on tap, one which will no doubt be wasted by everyone involved, with the time evenly divided between talking about the trade rumors and team-friendly contracts, and talking about not talking about the trade rumors and team-friendly contracts. Chris Archer really need not be talked about in those terms, for now, because the Rays are interesting (if not actually good), and because the way he’s pitching gives everyone plenty else about which to talk. For Jose Quintana, this summer is going to be miserable, unless he can figure out what’s wrong and fix it quickly.

Giancarlo Stanton gets another chance to hit a ball over (or through, really, given the way he tends to hit them) the Wrigley Field video board. The A’s get Jesse Hahn back (already?! The 10-day DL is still messing with my mind), and he’ll face Marco Estrada. Robbie Ray had one of those “here we go, he’s turning the corner for good this time” starts in Pittsburgh last week, but now has to play stopper for a Diamondbacks club that still wants to contend and encountered some real adversity over the weekend. Ray’s difficulty setting his two breaking balls off from one another is more of an issue when he pitches at home, too, because it’s hard to get proper feel on breaking stuff in the dry air of Arizona anyway.

With the Orioles fading and the other also-rans struggling to get over the hump at .500, though, the Red Sox-Yankees series kicking off in the Bronx is the biggest attraction in baseball this week. Masahiro Tanaka is vital to any hope the Yankees have of holding off Boston as summer really kicks in, and he hasn’t been up to that kind of billing so far this year. The Red Sox will try to make him wait at least one more start to get things straightened out.