Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 5/22/12
HOUSTON In the ceaseless search for a clue to what makes the Astros tick offensively came the presentation of another bit of crucial evidence. The Astros on Monday hammered Cubs right-hander Matt Garza, possessor one of the elite arms in the National League. They bashed him for seven runs over three innings in their 8-4 victory at Minute Maid Park, burnishing their burgeoning reputation against flamethrowers. Garza (2-2) entered this three-game series ranked seventh in the NL in opponents' batting average (.199). He was 18th in strikeout percentage (23.2) and seventh in average fastball velocity (93.4 miles per hour). He promptly surrendered three-run homers to Astros catcher Jason Castro in the second inning, and third baseman Chris Johnson in the third. Both homers came with two outs. Castro struck his blow down 0-2 in the count. For a lineup often hamstrung by its inconsistent approach at the plate, the results against the Cubs (15-27) were commendable. However, these results weren't foreign. Some of the Astros' more memorable offensive explosions have come against reputed fireballers. "We hope that we have good at-bats against other guys, too. That's what we want," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "We don't want it just to be against guys that are pretty firm throwers, and Garza is a pretty good pitcher and has thrown the ball his last couple outings extremely good." While four performances don't necessarily reveal a trend, they do portend to potential. April 19 in Washington the Astros (19-23) drilled three triples off right-hander Edwin Jackson in the first inning of their 11-4 victory. Jackson ranks 19th in the NL in strikeout percentage (22.8), and third in average fastball velocity (93.8 mph). Three nights later they touched up Dodgers right-hander Chad Billingsley for nine runs (five earned) over 3 13 innings. Carlos Lee struck for a two-run home run and Jordan Schafer added a grand slam to key a 12-0 win. Billingsley is 22nd in the NL in average fastball velocity (91.3 mph). Last Saturday night against Rangers left-hander Derek Holland, the Astros struck for three home runs to bolster their 6-5 triumph: a solo shot from catcher Chris Snyder, and two-run blasts from Lee and Justin Maxwell. Holland is 20th in the American League in strikeout percentage (21.1), and ninth in average fastball velocity (93.1 mph). Garza was the latest in a line of pitchers with plus fastballs to succumb. After Rangers right-hander Colby Lewis befuddled them with guile on Sunday, the Astros appeared set to meet the challenge Garza offered. "We were patient (at the plate)," Johnson said. "We got our pitches and did damage with them. He's a guy I haven't had much success off lately (Johnson was 0-for-2 with a walk and a strikeout against Garza) and I was really trying to focus in on getting a pitch I could drive and stay in the big part of the field. The first at-bat (a single two at-bats before Castro homered to right) I got a hanging curveball, and my second at-bat I got a fastball over the plate and hit it out (to straightaway center)." Like Johnson, Castro also turned on a fastball. Neither saw their success as a coincidence when set against the preference of their teammates. "I know we've got a lot of guys on our team that like to hit the fastball," Johnson said. "That's one thing we're working on. When we get a guy up there that's picking a little bit and throwing a lot of off-speed pitches, we've got to really focus in on getting a good pitch to hit. When you get a guy throwing hard like that he tends to challenge you a little bit. We've got some guys on our team that like to get after the fastball." If this small sample size is more than narrative, the Astros will get another opportunity to prove their ability against a power arm. The Cubs will send right-hander Jeff Samardzija (4-2, 3.00 ERA) to the mound in the series finale on Wednesday night. Samardzija, a former reliever, ranks second in the NL in average fastball velocity (94.8 mph) and sixth in strikeout percentage (25.5). Like Garza, he will throw hard. Given what's been revealed, the Astros should be invigorated. "We have some guys that put great swings on fastballs, and that's important," said Castro, whose home run was his first since July 19, 2010 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. "To hit off the fastball is what we need to do to be successful. Everything else will come off of that. To be efficient to the fastball is definitely of the utmost importance." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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