Jack Mayfield doubled in his first ever MLB at-bat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Tyler White and Jack Mayfield aren't close to All-Stars, but they can still help the Astros win important games. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Tyler White drove in a run and made the defensive play of the game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Anthony Rizzo and other Cubs stars have gone home run happy in Houston. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
The resting Carlos Correa and injured George Springer still had some fun in the dugout. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jack Mayfield showed some serious glove work, too. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Chicago Cubs fans made their presence felt among a massive crowd at Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Memorial Day brought some somber moments to Minute Maid Park. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Tyler White plays better defense than you might expect a big man to be able to play. He has good footwork. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Even when he runs into trouble on the mound, Roberto Osuna usually manages to right himself. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Robinson Chirinos' bat has proven to be very valuable for the Houston Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman is a steadying force in the Houston Astros' lineup. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Josh Reddick brings intensity to wherever spot he's hitting in. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Michael Brantley is just a professional hitter. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Alex Bregman's defense is sometimes as valuable as his bat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jack Mayfield’s postgame shower is anything but traditional. Beer, Listerine, shower soap, ketchup, mustard and more. This dousing pretty much has it all.
“He’ll smell pretty interesting for you guys,” Astros starter Gerrit Cole cracks.
This is how you celebrate a 28-year-old minor league long shot making his Major League debut in grand style. You pour junk on him.
At least, it’s how A.J. Hinch’s Houston Astros do it. The best team in baseball (when healthy) is a team in every sense of the word. On a weekend in which they somehow go 3-1 against the Red Sox and Cubs without George Springer and Jose Altuve, the Astros show the power of their group and belief system.
A 6-5 Memorial Day win over Chicago is a testament to the sum being greater than the parts. Mayfield doubles in his first at-bat, makes a few neat plays in the field. The maligned Tyler White saves two runs with a diving catch on a ball rocketing down the first base line, seemingly moving faster than a big man should be able to move. Derek Fisher picks up two hits batting in the eighth spot, getting clocked at running 30.1 feet per second on a blazes-out triple.
Over and over again, it’s the B Team Astros showing the way against one of the best teams in the National League. They’re able to do it because the missing stars always made them feel like a part of it.
“I don’t think so,” Fisher says when I ask if the Astros play a different style when there are so many stars gone. “Watching these guys play every day, when these guys are all together, it’s an All-Star team. That’s not a secret. I think the biggest thing is watching how they go about their way. And spring training obviously goes into this when we’re around them so much.
“They grind. And that’s the biggest thing right now. Not only do we drive in runs, but like today, we put some bat on the ball and we battled some at-bats And right now, that’s the biggest thing about us. Some guys that aren’t playing all the time, guys that haven’t played yet this year, are battling in at-bats and grinding runs.”
The 35-18 American League East-leading Yankees have drawn plenty of praise (much of it deserved) for continuing to win with some major stars missing. But the 36-19 AL West-leading Astros are doing a pretty good of that too, lately.
This is a testament to how deep general manager Jeff Luhnow has made the Astros system. But it might be an even bigger reflection on the type of culture that A.J. Hinch and leaders like Altuve and Cole have built in the clubhouse. Hinch tries to keep his bench players sharp and engaged by working them into lineups even when the Astros are at full strength.
Now, that this Houston team’s health is reeling a little, that’s paying off even more. In fact, in many ways, it is Hinch’s work that is allowing Luhnow to stick to methodical and Major League service time wise plans with potential future stars Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker.
Guys like Fisher and Mayfield may be the replacements, but they’ve never been treated like throwaways. Certainly not be their much more famous teammates.
Instead, there is real joy over Mayfield’s long-awaited and once delayed debut. There is much more love than hazing in the Astros dumping anything they can find on the rookie in that impromptu postgame clubhouse dousing. The rest of the Astros are beyond genuinely happy for the guy they nicknamed Super Jack.
“I think I was more excited for his debut than my own,” the 25-year-old Fisher tells PaperCity. “He’s somebody who’s been around for a long time and he’s been grinding. He stuck around and he’s obviously deserved it. There’s nobody more deserving in our organization than him.
“I feel like there’s a lot of coaches, present and past, who wish they could be the one who called him up because he’s that good of a guy.”
Mayfield thought he was getting called up last weekend. He even was flown to Boston to make his debut, but a last second decision switch meant he had to get back on another plane and return to the Triple A life.
“He kind of got dry humped a bit in Boston,” Cole says as only he can. “I don’t know how public that is, but the cat’s out of the bag now.”
Cole has a unique way with words and strikeouts (he racked up 12 punch-outs on Memorial Day to add to his Major League lead). He is also an ace who can make any Astros replacement lineup feel like it still has a real chance to win.
The Replacements Rock
To say that the Astros’ lineup is limited for this Memorial Day matinee is like saying that Bachelor contestants aren’t America’s best and brightest. There is limited and then there’s needing to bat catcher Robinson Chirinos fifth and a first-time Big Leaguer sixth (Mayfield).
Not to mention the struggling White seventh and Derek “I’m not Yordan Alvarez” Fisher eighth.
Springer, Altuve and Aledmys Diaz are all on the injured list. Carlos Correa gets a day of rest. And just like that, three league MVP caliber talents (Springer, Altuve, Correa) and a valuable utility player are missing from the Astros’ batting order.
Chicago Cubs starter Cole Hamels should be rubbing his hands together in glee and cackling like a super villain. Instead, he’s left reeling by the Astros’ B Team.
It is Hinch’s work that is allowing Luhnow to stick to methodical and Major League service time wise plans with potential future stars Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker.
Houston scores five runs in the third inning, sending nine hitters to the plate. Chirinos, Mayfield, Fisher and No. 9 hitter Jake Marisnick all drive in runs. It’s a relentless onslaught from the guys you never expect to be playing hero.
“I think it’s more about the grind for the guy behind you,” Fisher says. “This team’s so good, that it’s a different guy every night. Just being able to grind out your at-bat, get on base, is all this team needs.”
This is part of what makes these Astros special. Houston’s roster has a lot of stars (usually), but this is also a team that picks up each other. Sometimes the collective is better than the parts.
No one reflect this more than Jack Mayfield, the guy walking around the clubhouse wearing the Astros’ gaudy royal player of the game robe and an unshakeable grin.
“Honestly, it just went by in the blink of an eye,” the still grinning Mayfield says. “It almost still doesn’t feel real.”
Mayfield may be still walking on cloud nine, but his teammates made sure he knows he is more than welcome on their ground.
“These guys just took me in,” the 28-year-old rookie says. “Everyone congratulated me when I got here. It helped me feel at home. That honestly helped me a lot to just relax.”
That is how these Astros operate under Hinch, Altuve, Correa, Cole, Alex Bregman and Justin Verlander. Houston’s lineup may be packed with All-Stars (usually), but this team’s never been just a collection of them. This is a team no matter who’s missing.
For more of Chris Baldwin’s columns and unique look at the Houston sports scene, click here.