The Astros should go farther in 2019 than in 2018

Why the Astros are the team to beat this postseason

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Going into October in 2018, it appeared that the Astros were poised to be repeat champions. They cruised past the Indians in the ALDS, sweeping them in three games to indicate that the team that won the World Series in 2017 had gotten even better. They continued that momentum into the ALCS against the Red Sox, stealing Game 1 on the road in Boston. Then, the Astros met a disappointing fate by dropping the next four games, including the Game 5 loss at home in Houston which sent Boston on to their eventual World Series win.

While losing in the ALCS and not being able to defend their crown in the World Series was a disappointing result to 2018's season considering the high expectations, it was not completely a result of underperformance. There were several components to last year's playoff run that the Astros have improved on, making them once again the team to beat going into October:

They're more healthy this go-around

Probably the most significant difference between this year's team and last: their core players are mostly healthy. One of the disappointments of last year was Jose Altuve unable to perform to his usual level due to lingering injuries. This year, he appears to be at 100 percent, along with most of Houston's roster. The biggest question mark in regards to the team's health going into Friday's ALDS Game 1 is Carlos Correa. While the current report is that he could be ready to play, until he's in the lineup and looks to be at his best, his track record of injuries and re-injury will leave concern with many heading into October.

They've got the best pitchers

I do not envy Cy Young voters. Picking between Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole is going to be such a hair-splitting task that it very well could end in a tie. While that will be interesting to see come November when it's announced, in October the duo will lead the Astros as the best two starters of the bunch. Sure, the fourth spot in the playoff rotation will be interesting, but when you have Verlander and Cole starting the first two games of the series, the Astros have as good a chance of anyone of starting each series 2-0 with two more starts from them in the seven-game sets. Add to them the freshly acquired Zack Greinke, and any offense going up against the Astros in the postseason should know they have an uphill battle in front of them at the plate.

The bullpen is also shaping up to be successful for the Astros. As was on display this past weekend in the series with the Angels, the trio of Will Harris, Ryan Pressly, and Roberto Osuna could be lights out against anyone in the final three innings of a game. While we await the playoff roster to see who else will join them, they should be able to pick the best few arms to add to the before-mentioned trio to close out these tightly contested games.

Their offense is better than ever

Yordan Alvarez. That's it, that's all I need to say. Seriously, though, the potent offense that Houston's fans have become accustomed to over the last two years has gotten even better in 2019. One piece of that is the rookie phenom Alvarez who has shattered records and been a force to reckon with, but it's also potential MVP winner Alex Bregman who took another step forward in his career this year. Then, there's Michael Brantley, new to the team for 2019, who despite a down September has been the epitome of consistency in Houston's lineup.

You also have to consider George Springer, who had an even better season at the plate than he did before going on to win the 2017 World Series MVP. If he takes things up another notch in the playoffs, as he's been able to do the last two years, then we could be in for a lot of dingers. You add to them a healthy Jose Altuve and possibly Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel who broke through with a 31 home run 104 RBI season, and the cliche of "there's no easy out in this lineup" becomes as accurate as ever for this team.

They're seasoned and experienced

The core of this team has tasted success and defeat in the playoffs. With that, they also realize that the key to them finishing the playoffs on top is the same as the one they used to finish the regular season with the best record: be themselves and play their brand of baseball. Don't expect them to get overly aggressive at the plate or on the mound for the sake of having a personal highlight, because they should know that's not what led them to 107 victories this year.

Instead, I would expect the veteran leadership of this team, much like Carlos Beltran did for the younger squad in 2017, to help keep the clubhouse loose and upbeat. With a team this stacked, the only ones that should be able to beat them is themselves, so they have to avoid getting in their own heads.

Having said all this, when the playoffs get underway this week, regular-season success (other than home-field advantage, which the Astros will have all the way) is no longer significant. All that matters is winning the game ahead of you, and I think that this Astros team's makeup puts them in position to beat anyone in that scenario.

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The losing streak continues

Mariners get walk-off win over short-staffed Astros

Alex De Goti had an impressive debut. Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

After a brutal homestand capped off by losing five players to the IL for health and safety protocols, the once 5-1 Astros brought their now 6-6 record to T-Mobile park in Seattle to try and right the ship. They'd have to do it with new and young players in the lineup using the "next man up" mentality to get some wins against the first-place Mariners.

Though the young bats would work themselves into a lead most of the night, Houston's bullpen wouldn't be able to hold the Mariners down, with Seattle ultimately walking things off in the ninth.

Final Score: Mariners 6, Astros 5

Astros' Record: 6-7, fourth in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Anthony Misiewicz (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Ryne Stanek (0-1)

After a quiet start, Houston gets three in the fifth

After cruising through the Astros through the first four innings, allowing only a walk over that span, Houston was able to put up a big inning against Yusei Kikuchi in the top of the fifth. Carlos Correa notched the first hit of the night, followed by a walk by Taylor Jones to put two on base.

That brought Alex De Goti, making his major-league debut, to the plate and, in his second career at-bat, would get his first hit and RBI, bringing in Correa from second on a single. A second run would come on the same play on a throwing error, then Chaz McCormick made it a three-run inning with an RBI-double, putting Houston out front 3-0.

Urquidy comes an out shy of a quality start

Meanwhile, Jose Urquidy was doing well through five innings. On track for a much-needed quality start, the Mariners would tag him in the bottom of the sixth, getting three-straight hits to bring in two runs to lead off the frame and leaving a runner on second base with no outs.

Urquidy would rebound to get the next two batters on strikeouts, but at 90 pitches and with a left-handed hitter up next, Dusty Baker would bring in lefty Brooks Raley to try and get out of the inning with the one-run lead intact. Raley would do his job, putting Uruidy's line final: 5.2 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 7 K, 90 P.

Teams trade two-run seventh innings

The young bats for Houston struck again in the top of the seventh, with Jones and De Goti leading it off with back-to-back singles before Jason Castro would load the bases with a walk. With two outs, Aledmys Diaz would push the lead back to three with a two-RBI single, making it 5-2.

With Raley out after facing his one batter, next out of Houston's bullpen was Bryan Abreu to help maintain Houston's lead. Instead, he would give up two runs on two hits and a walk while getting just two outs before Baker moved on to Blake Taylor, who would get the last out of the seventh with Houston hanging on to a one-run lead at 5-4.

Mariners get the walk-off win

Taylor remained in the game in the bottom of the eighth, and after getting an out, would allow a game-tying solo home run to Evan White before injuring himself trying to field an infield single. Ryne Stanek entered and finished off the eighth, sending the tie game to the ninth.

After Houston came up empty in the top half, Stanek remained in the game in the bottom of the ninth, attempting to force extras. Back-to-back walks ended Stanek's night, with the Astros hoping Ryan Pressly could bail them out. He couldn't, though, giving up the walk-off hit as the Mariners would take the opener, 6-5.

Up Next: Game two of this three-game set will start an hour earlier on Saturday, with first pitch at 8:10 PM Central. Zack Greinke (1-1, 4.08 ERA) will try to rebound from a poor start his last time out for the Astros, while the Mariners will hand the ball to Chris Flexen (1-0, 4.50 ERA).

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