Even without Kyle Tucker, the Astros' 'selfless' offense is thriving

TORONTO — The Houston Astros preach passing the baton, a sort of complementary baseball that rewards patience and requires a refined approach. It won’t win any awards for aesthetics or attract attention, but it is the foundation around which this team has built its seven-year golden era.

“It’s selfless,” utilityman Mauricio Dubón said. “You want to hit a three-run home run or you want to come in and be the hero, but in reality, in 2022 we did the same thing — pass the baton.”

Aggression has overtaken the lineup at times this season, but at their best, the Astros are masters of generating contact and grinding down opposing pitchers. The approach can sustain seismic losses, be it Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve for stretches of last season or Kyle Tucker for the past 26 games of this one.

Tucker won’t rejoin the team until after the All-Star break, an obvious fact manager Joe Espada finally made official before Thursday’s 5-3 win against the Toronto Blue Jays. Tucker is taking swings off a tee and recently progressed to playing catch inside the batting cages but still isn’t participating in any on-field baseball activities. Espada expressed optimism Tucker could resume those this weekend in Minnesota.

Though Tucker hasn’t played in a month, he still has the highest OPS and slugging percentage of any qualified Astros hitter. He maintained the club lead in home runs until Wednesday when Alvarez whacked his 19th of the season to create a tie atop the team leaderboard.

Alvarez has 17 extra-base hits in 88 at-bats since Tucker sustained his shin contusion June 3, a stretch in which he’s raised his OPS from .856 to .938. Alvarez struck a home run in each of this series’ first three games. On Thursday, the Blue Jays responded by refusing to pitch to him.

Starter Chris Bassitt pitched around Alvarez in the first, intentionally walked him in the fourth and — if not for home-plate umpire Ben May’s generous strike zone — would have walked him in the second. Alvarez hit five home runs in 20 prior plate appearances against Bassitt, so avoiding him altogether is sound logic.

Espada acknowledged as much after Thursday’s game but issued a warning about the ill effects it can have. He wrote a lineup with five qualified hitters who carried an OPS+ of 100 or higher. Both Alex Bregman and Jon Singleton were one point below at 99. Jake Meyers, who pinch hit for Singleton in the seventh inning, brought a 107 OPS+ to the plate.

“I feel like we have nine really tough outs,” Espada said. “There’s not only that guy in the three-hole. It’s everyone. If you’re going to intentionally walk him, there are guys behind him that are going to keep the line moving, and that’s what we need. We need big at-bats from everyone and we’re getting those.”

The Astros are scoring 5.5 runs per game across Tucker’s 26-game absence. Only seven teams entered Thursday with a higher OPS since the day Tucker injured himself, reinforcing a thought that Houston may not require a meaningful offensive upgrade at the trade deadline and should focus all its attention on an injury-ravaged starting rotation.

Upgrading at first base should still be considered, but Houston’s offensive continuity without its best hitter proves this current roster is capable. The Astros are 18-8 since Tucker’s injury and have managed at least 10 hits in 14 of their past 26 games. Four others featured nine hits, including a methodical win Thursday that featured so much of what this lineup lacked earlier this season.

“I feel like earlier in the year we were getting runners on but weren’t doing much with it or getting them in,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said. “We’ve been playing the game lately — moving the runner over, sac flies, manufacturing runs. That’s what we have to keep doing.”

Houston averaged 4.4 runs across the 61 games preceding Tucker’s injury. The worst start of Bregman’s career contributed to the tepid production. So did José Abreu’s continued presence on the active roster. Inconsistencies from Peña and Yainer Diaz shortened a lineup that can’t pass the baton when only three or four hitters are contributing.

Alvarez, Bregman, Tucker and Altuve are still the anchors, but for the offense to function as intended, contributions are needed from all nine hitters in the order.

Bregman has bemoaned the team’s swing-happy tendencies — and some of that still shows itself — but the Astros create more contact than all but two lineups in the sport. They coaxed 50 pitches from Bassitt across two innings Thursday, truncating his day with the knowledge Toronto has a terrible bullpen.

“With the stretch we’re in, everyone is giving tough at-bats top to bottom,” rookie outfielder Joey Loperfido said. “It sets the tone day in and day out that you have to make pitches to beat us and that we’re really not going to expand the zone too much.”

Loperfido finished hitless in four at-bats Thursday. Talk to those involved, though, and he provided the game’s most meaningful moment — one that typifies everything this offense can be. Peña stood at first base in a tie game when Loperfido arrived in the fifth inning.

Bassitt evened the count at 2-2 before peppering the rookie with a plethora of putaway pitches. Loperfido spoiled a curveball on the outer half, a cutter at his waist and an elevated sinker that he maybe should’ve done more with.

After eight pitches, Bassitt supplied another sinker over the heart of home plate. Loperfido smashed it to second base. Peña moved on contact, erasing the possibility of an inning-ending double play while Loperfido delivered the productive out upon which this lineup can thrive.

From the on-deck circle, Dubón tracked the tenacious at-bat. He saw just two pitches from Bassitt in his first plate appearance, unsurprising given the tendencies of both Dubón and the lineup around him.

“It helped me time him up better. That’s a big at-bat,” Dubón said. “It helped me out, actually, watching more pitches from the side.”

Dubón stepped in, crushed a cutter into center field and chased Peña home as the go-ahead run.

“It’s like the line keeps moving,” Espada said.

(Photo of Jeremy Peña: Mark Blinch / Getty Images)

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