By HAL McCOY
CINCINNATI — These are the best of times to play the Houston Astros, a team that is actually half-a-team right now.
Four of their best players currently reside on the injury list — Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers.
And the Cincinnati Reds took full advantage of it Monday night, led by pitcher Luis Castillo and center fielder Nick Senzel. The Reds held off the runaway leaders in the American League West, 3-2, in rain-soggied Great American Ball Park.
Castillo (7-and-1) held the Astros scoreless for five innings before giving up two in the sixth, then the bullpen held fast. Castillo pitched 6-plus innings and gave up two runs, two hits, struck out seven. But his world was in turmoil because he walked a career-worst six.
The Reds scored all three of their runs in the fifth inning off Houston left hander Wade Miley, the big blast provided by Nick Senzel, a two-run single.
Even with all the missing parts, the Astros (48-25) remain formidable foes. They came back from the three-run deficit to pull within one.
Despite their personnel shortages, the Astros are like a San Francisco fog — they just keep trying to cover things up.
And in the ninth inning, David Bell made a move that was a tad controversial, silenced a bit because it worked.
With one out on a runner on first, Bell removed his closer, Raisel Iglesias, robbing him on a possible save, and inserted Michael Lorenzen. It worked because Lorenzen retired the two hitters he faced, ending the game with a 99 miles an hour strike-out fastball.
“We were doing whatever we can to give us our best chance to win,” said Bell. “Raisel has done it before and will do it again. He is a great pitcher.”
Then why take him out?
“It seemed like the right move,” said Bell. “That’s what good teams do. You pick each other up. What I asked him to do is going to be difficult for anybody to do, to be able to finish the game from that point (he entered with one out in the eighth) against that team. Tonight it was somebody else’s turn.”
Asked what it was that he thought Iglesias couldn’t get the last two batters, Bell said, “The best way to say it was that I felt that was the right move tonight. It wasn’t that his stuff wasn’t good, but it was more of a feel about the life on his pitches. He can be dominant, but he wasn’t dominant tonight — and we don’t always expect that. It was more of just a feel.”
Iglesias was not angry or even disappointed. At least that’s what he said after the game through a translator.
“No, no. I feel really happy because we won the game,” he said. “That’s the important thing. I feel happy about that and I know these situations are going to come. I’m ready for it.”
Nevertheless, he had to be surprised to see Bell coming to the mound to take the baseball away from him.
“No, I wasn’t surprised at all,” he said. “My command wasn’t good enough because it has been many days since I pitched. It didn’t surprise me because this is about winning games.”
Iglesias walked the first batter in the ninth and retired the next hitter. That’s when Bell stunned the press box, when he took the ball away from his closer and handed it to Michael Lorenzen. He retired Michael Brantley on one pitch, a fly to center, then struck out rookie Yordan Alvare with a 99 miles an hour four-seamer for a save that lifted the Reds’ one-run record to 10-and-15.
And it lifted them out of last place and into fourth, a half-game ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had the night off and toppled into last place in the National League Central.
Rain interrupted play during the bottom of the third with the game 0-0. The delay was 52 minutes.
Both starting pitchers, Houston’s Wade Miley and Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo, returned to pitch after the downpour.
It didn’t affect Miley and he quickly finished off the Reds in the third. It did appear to bother Castillo.
He gave up a one-out single to Yuri Gurriel and walked the next two, both on full counts, to load the bases with one out.
Rescue was just one pitch away — a sharp ground ball to second baseman Kyle Farmer behind the bag. He sprinted 12 feet to second for the force out and ripped a throw to first to get Tyler White, an inning-ending double play.
Said Castillo, “That was a huge moment, like when we win the game. They had the bases loaded, one out, and he made that great double play. It was unbelievable. It was great.”
It got to Miley in the fifth and the Reds broke through for a pair of runs. Curt Casali beat the shift by poking a single through the uncovered right side. Miley walked Kyle Farmer.
Castillo bunted the runners up to third and second. Nick Senzel, back in the lineup after taking four stitches in his left eye-lid Sunday, drove a two-run single to center.
Miley walked Joey Votto and the shift stung the Astros again. Eugenio Suarez dumped an opposite field run-scoring to right and it was 3-0.
Yasiiel Puig fouled off four 3-and-2 pitches before Miley walked him to fill the bases, Miley’s last pitch of the night.
With the bases loaded and one out, Hector Rondon took over the mound duties. Jesse Winker batted for Phillip Ervin and promptly ended the uprising when the Astros turned an acrobatic double play.
Manager David Bell permitted Castillo to start the seventh inning and when he walked the first two Astros his night was over.
David Hernandez replaced Castillo and the Astros scored an unearned run on shortstop Jose Peraza’s throwing error.
When Hernandez walked Alex Bregman, placing the potential tying runs on base, Bell inserted left hander Amir Garrett to face left hander Michael Brantley. Brantley doubled into the right field corner for a run, but Astros third base coach Gary Pettis stopped Bregman at third when he probably could have scored the tying run.
It worked in the Reds’ favor when rookie Yordan Alvarez flied to deep right to end the inning, leaving the Reds on top, 3-2.
Trouble bubbled to the surface in the eighth when the Astros put two runners on base with two outs and closer Raisel Iglesias threw a wild pitch.
That put the potential tying run on third and the potential go-ahead run on second. Iglesias squeezed out of it by getting a full count ground ball to second base out of Tony Kemp.
Then came the ninth and Bell’s bold and controversial move. Had it failed, Bell would have been pilloried and skewered. But it worked.
Castillo was ecstatic over pitching a victory over the Astros, depleted or not.
“You are facing world-class hitters on a world-class team,” he said. “In this situation, you try to be 100 per cent and make your pitches.”