At their best, the Astros are the best in the league

The Astros are the most well-rounded team in baseball right now

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite a tough 3-3 week where they dropped three of four in Minnesota against a tough Twins team, the huge display of power in Mexico over the weekend put things back in perspective; the Astros can beat anyone, anywhere. With the second full month of baseball underway, I took some time to break down what has been going right for the Astros so far in 2019:

Catching fire at the plate

Granted, the Astros just scored 24 runs over a two-game span against the Angels in Monterrey, but nonetheless, it's a sign that this potent offense is shaking off the early-season dust and finding their swing. If we would have been told going into the 2019 season that Jose Altuve would be hovering around a .250 average after 34 games, most of us probably would have considered that a symptom of the team at large struggling on offense. Instead, we've seen quite the contrary with other key players at the top of the lineup stepping up in big ways.

One of those key players is Michael Brantley. He has been nothing short of fantastic in an Astros uniform and currently leads the team in batting average at .336, which as of this writing was seventh-best in the majors. Pair that with his team second-best 24 RBIs and Houston's new cleanup hitter has fit in perfectly. Speaking of RBIs, the owner of first place on the team is George Springer, whose 27 RBIs and 10 home runs so far this year has him tied for eighth in the league in both categories.

Something that would pair well with these two guys getting hits is someone that can reliably get on base. Enter Alex Bregman. His .400 on-base percentage leads the team and is good for ninth-best in the American League. Much of that has to do with his patience at the plate which has led to 22 walks in 2019, tied for ninth-most in the league.

While the before-mentioned players come up with a lot of big hits, another noticeable part of this lineup that has had a surprisingly good start to the year is Josh Reddick. Reddick is not far behind Brantley in batting average, sitting at .330, and not far behind Bregman in on-base percentage, sitting at .380. After having his struggles at the plate last season he has had a hot start to 2019.

Throw all those bats in the mix with a rising Altuve and Carlos Correa, and it's no surprise that Houston's order has worked their way to the top of the league's leaderboard in team average at a combined .271, third-best in on-base percentage at .344, and third-lowest in strikeout percentage at 19.5%.

Don't forget the guys on the mound 

Although the offense may generate most of the highlights on any given night, the pitching staff for Houston deserves a lot of credit for where this team is now and can go the rest of the year.

It starts with ace Justin Verlander, who I won't break down in great detail here since I did just that last week, but for argument's sake let me just highlight that he's 5-1 with a 0.87 WHIP (third-best in the league), 60 strikeouts (third-best in the league), and .176 average against (fourth-best in the league). His biggest fault so far has been giving up too many home runs.

Behind him, you've got the league-leader in strikeouts, Gerrit Cole, who currently sits at 65 and is a start behind most of the leaders since he'll pitch tonight for his eighth game of the year. He's had a big bomb to his numbers after that horrible start against the Rangers earlier this year, but his numbers are still great and have him near the top of the charts.

While the 3-4-5 guys of Collin McHugh, Wade Miley, and Brad Peacock may not be as high on the leaderboards or putting up the kind of numbers that Charlie Morton did for the Astros, they have done their job on the whole of keeping Houston ahead or close enough for the bats to get them back in it.

Behind these starters is an excellent bullpen. The two relievers leading the way and having the most impact are Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna. Pressly passed Astros-great Roy Oswalt on Sunday by recording his 33rd-straight scoreless inning, giving him a new franchise record. While the streak is historic in and of itself, it's the result of inning after inning of Pressly being in command and imposing his will against batters. He's just another great addition the Astros have made in recent years that compliment the rest of the team, making him one of the best eighth-inning setup guys in the league.

Osuna, Houston's closer they acquired in 2018, has been phenomenal with his new team since joining after his suspension ended last year. While his signing and the situation surrounding it is still rightly debated when you look purely at his work on the mound it has been electric. He has not blown a save since joining Houston, and in 2019 he's allowed just one unimportant run in his 14.1 innings of relief to go along with just three hits and zero walks and eleven strikeouts.

Again, when you put all these pieces together, you get a team ERA of 3.57 (fifth-best in the league), 9.44 strikeouts per 9 innings (eighth-best in the league), and 2.57 walks per 9 innings (best in the league) which if you want to summarize by WAR (wins above replacement), comes out to a 4.7, fifth-best in the league.

Looking ahead: is there even a ceiling?

While their play so far may not have them as the undisputed best team in baseball, all indications are there that they are without question in the conversation, and could easily win a series against any team. It will be interesting to look back at some of these points at both the half-way point of the year when many of these guys are likely named to the All-Star team, then again at the end of the season when they put all their effort into the playoff push and beyond.

With this Astros roster, the only ceiling we may be discussing in October could be Minute Maid Park's, and where to hang another World Series banner.

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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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