IT'S ALL HAPPENING

Should you need it, here’s the definitive list of why it’s happening for Astros

Astros Tucker, Valdez, Correa, Maldonado
The Astros' magic number is 2. Composite image by Jack Brame.

With a nod to Rod Stewart, tonight's the night. The Astros will be crowned American League West champs if they beat the Tampa Rays at home and the Mariners lose to the A's on the west coast. Yeah, the Astros are slogging their way toward the finish line, it's not fun watching the other team walk it off of late, but the pennant is there for the taking, and it's gonna happen. It's just a matter of time zones, tonight, tomorrow or the next day. But it's gonna happen.

It can't not happen. The Astros' magic number is 2, so any combination of Astros wins or Mariners losses equaling two, and it's a done deal - the Astros will take the AL West title and open the post-season next week most likely against the White Sox, probably (hopefully) at Minute Maid Park.

Stop worrying. For the Astros to blow their 4-1/2 game lead with only six left to play, all at home, would take a monumental, catastrophic, unimaginable collapse unprecedented in baseball history.

To quote another music legend, Justin Bieber, never say never, but I'm saying never, not in a million years will the Astros throw away this division title

The Astros have too much going for them. First baseman Yuli Gurriel is battling for a batting title. Jose Altuve is having a terrific power season. Shortstop Carlos Correa has $300 million in his eyes if he's a hero in the playoffs, third baseman Alex Bregman is back in full swagger, Kyle Tucker may be the best hitter in the league right now and the Astros have the "problem" of three future outfield stars – Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers and Jose Siri – with steady Michael Brantley champing at the bit to return to the lineup.

You need a civil surveyor to measure the distance of a Yordan Alvarez homer. Lance McCullers is a full-fledged ace starter. Ryan Pressly is a dependable closer – sometimes. This is a solid, star-packed roster. All that's left are hat and horns and goggles.

As they say in the business world, the Astros are too big to fail. Then again … Enron.

To date, the most horrendous collapse was in 1964, when the Phillies had a 6-1/2 game lead on Sept. 21 with 12 left to play. The league had given them permission to print World Series tickets, back then the sign the pennant was locked up.

The Phils proceeded to lose 10 in a row and actually fell behind eventual pennant winning Cardinals by 2-1/2 games that final week. The Phillies rallied the last weekend to finish one game out, tied with the Reds for second. The Phils didn't make the post-season for another 12 years.

The Astros do have real problems beyond capturing the AL West. Let's hope the White Sox don't catch on to Jose Altuve trying to crush the first pitch every game. Everybody at home watching on TV knows it's coming. Like the Progressive commercial with the guy with blue hair – we all see it. And the opposing pitcher still starts Altuve off with a fastball down the middle.

Something else I haven't understood all season – the sound quality of manager Dusty Baker's post-game press conferences. We can talk to astronauts in space like we're calling Domino's for a pizza, yet Osama bin Laden's videos from a cave in Afghanistan had clearer sound quality than Dusty's press conferences. Heck, the speaker at Jack in the Box is easier to understand than Dusty explaining why he pulled Yordan Alvarez from a tight game.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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