STAR POWER

​If you’re feeling Astros déjà vu, here’s why

The Astros are crushing the baseball. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

No, MLB has not given the Astros permission to print World Series tickets just yet, and nobody's counting down their "magic number," but this way-too-early season sure feels like 2017 and 2019, the Astros last two trips to the Fall Classic.

Despite Monday night's late score, a 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, the Astros are sitting at 4-1 on the year, including a dominating sweep of the defending American League West champs A's. That was a hell of a start on the road in Oakland. Only three other teams in history scored 8 or more runs in their first four games like the Astros did.

I remember that familiar feeling from 2017. I'd get home, turn on the TV and just assume the Astros would be up by a few runs heading into the sixth or seventh inning. That's one of the best things about baseball's crazy long 162-game season, there's rarely "nothing on TV" – there's almost always an Astros game.

Look at the top of the Astros batting order: Jose Altuve is back to being Jose Altuve slashing .381, Michael Brantley is crushing a ridiculous .667, Alex Bregman is at .471, Yuli Gurriel is at .500, supersub Aledmys Diaz is .375, Carlos Correa is back up to .273 and Yordan Alvarez is healthy and driving in runs at .273.

How have the Astros lost even one game?

The Astros are a mashing machine, racking up 42 runs in their five games. That's all-time record stratosphere.

The Astros swagger is back. It may (maybe not) have been unintentional, but recently tatted Correa was badass knocking A's All-Star Matt Chapman on his butt with a tag on a double play ball.

Like most fans, Alex Bregman put on the "COVID 15" pounds, except his is muscle. The Astros aren't trembling over fans' jeers. If fans in other stadiums want to bang trash cans, bang away. Scoreboard.

The Astros are doing this despite losing Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, George Springer and Josh Reddick over the past couple of seasons. Manager A.J. Hinch and g.m. Jeff Luhnow, too. They've reloaded.

Sure, not all is joy in Mudville. The Astros starting pitching has been concerning, only one quality start (six innings or more with fewer than three earned runs) – Zack Greinke on Opening Day. And he did it just barely, going six innings in an 8-1 Astros win.

While the top of the Astros lineup has been historic, the bottom of the order is a little like Little League with semi-automatic outs. Kyle Tucker is scuffling at .182, Myles Straw is struggling at .176, and Martin Maldonado is laying low at .063.

Still there's no getting around it (you can look it up), the Astros are scoring runs at a ridiculous rate. After five games, a small but significant sampling because they've been on the road against their two main AL West rivals, the Astros are averaging 8.4 runs a game. The Astros are a swinging team all right.

To place the Astros' run production in perspective, no team ever has averaged as many as seven runs a game over a season. The all-time bashing team was the 1931 Yankees, with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig both swatting 48 homers to lead the American League. That year, the Yankees averaged 6.97 runs per game. They also led the league in batting average, homers, on base percentage, slugging and stolen bases. Gehrig set the American League record with 184 RBI.

Now before we get too giddy over the Astros' fritzing out the scoreboard on a daily basis …

The 1931 Yankees finished in second place, a distant 13-1/2 games behind the Philadelphia A's.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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