KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch has a “soft rule” when it comes to a rain delay during a game: If it lasts about an hour, he’ll usually remove his starting pitcher.
Good thing it’s not a hard rule.
Hinch opted to keep Collin McHugh on the mound after a 49-minute stoppage Thursday night, and the soft-spoken righty responded with a resounding performance. He shut down the Kansas City Royals over six innings for a 5-2 victory in the opener of their AL Division Series.
“We checked in with him a couple times, but he was never really coming out of that game,” Hinch said of McHugh, a surprise 19-game winner this season. “That wasn’t even his best tonight, and he got through a pretty good lineup and battled.”
Three relievers took over and got the game to Luke Gregerson, part of Oakland’s wild-card collapse in Kansas City last year. He handled the ninth for a save.
George Springer and Colby Rasmus went deep for the homer-happy Astros, but they also scored via the same sort of small ball the Royals used in reaching the World Series last season.
“Winning the first game was key,” Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez said. “We did that.”
Yordano Ventura (0-1) yielded three runs on four hits and a walk in two innings for Kansas City, but did not come back following the delay. Chris Young served up Springer’s home run with one out in the fifth, but tossed four otherwise solid innings of relief.
Game 2 is Friday, when lefty Scott Kazmir takes the mound for Houston against right-hander Johnny Cueto in a matchup of pitchers traded days apart this past summer.
“It’s a five-game series,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “It’s not a death sentence to lose Game 1.”
The Astros, who struggled so mightily on the road this season, have apparently solved their woes just in time. They beat the Yankees 3-0 in New York in Tuesday night’s wild-card game, then took care of a Royals club built specifically for spacious Kauffman Stadium.
Houston also made it the first time since 1970 that visiting teams won baseball’s first four postseason games, STATS said. The other two times it happened were 1906 and 1923.
“Everyone knows we haven’t been playing the best on the road,” reliever Tony Sipp said. “To take one in New York and come here, it shows we’re a different kind of team.”
The Astros wasted no time getting Ventura in trouble, loading the bases with nobody out in the first inning. The hard-throwing ace settled down to retire the next three batters, but Rasmus and Evan Gattis provided RBI groundouts to give Houston a 2-0 lead.
Jose Altuve tacked on another run in the second with a single to right.
The Royals answered in the bottom half when Morales ripped McHugh’s 89 mph fastball down the right-field line. But a steady rain soon became a downpour as the inning progressed, and lightning sent fans scurrying for the concourse as the tarp was pulled onto the field.
When the game resumed, the Royals sent Young to the mound rather than Ventura.
“It was pushing 60 minutes there,” said Yost, who hopes to bring back Ventura in Game 4.
Hinch stuck with McHugh, even though he hadn’t thrown a pitch for nearly an hour.
Morales got the better of him again in the fourth, driving a 1-1 pitch over the wall in right to become the first Royals player with two homers in a postseason game since George Brett against Toronto in the 1985 AL Championship Series.
Unfortunately for the Royals, Morales was the only hitter who could solve McHugh. That left the darlings of last year’s postseason facing a crucial Game 2 on Friday.
“We’re happy. It’s obviously good,” Springer said, “but it’s on to tomorrow. I mean, it’s over with, and now we understand that they’re going to be prepared to play.”
Rasmus also homered in the wild-card game at Yankee Stadium. He has six homers and 11 RBIs in his last nine games, and tied a major league record by getting an extra-base hit in his first five postseason games.
Even the Royals’ grounds crew had a rough night. One of the workers responsible for rolling out the tarp during the delay tripped and fell. The tarp kept rolling right over his legs and he screamed in pain. There was no word on the extent of his injury.
Two pitchers procured with October in mind square off in Game 2. The Astros send out Kazmir, obtained in a July trade with Oakland, to face a team he has dominated in the past. The Royals counter with Cueto, acquired from Cincinnati a few days later. Cueto has struggled in his previous postseason appearances.
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