HIGH HOPES

How the Houston Astros respect level just went up a notch

How the Houston Astros respect level just went up a notch
This year, the Astros are favored to win the World Series. Composite image by Brandon Strange.
Astros have at least 3 strong reasons for a no-brainer decision at key position

When the umpire yells "play ball!" on Thursday for Astros opening day, three players- a full third of their batting order - will be missing from their opening day lineup from last year when, oh yeah, they won the World Series. Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley are on the injured list and Yuli Gurriel effectively was told good luck in your future endeavors. Other notables from last year no longer with the Astros: Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Aledmys Diaz, Christian Vasquez, and Jake Odorizzi.

That's on top of the Astros in recent years saying goodbye to All-Stars Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Charlie Morton. Don't underestimate Morton's contribution when he pitched for the Astros in 2017-18. He went 29-10 and won Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, that's all.

And while the team keeps on winning at a historic pace, all these injuries and departures are going to catch up to the Astros one of these years.

But this ain't the year. The Astros demolished baseball last year, winning their division by 16 games and roaring through the postseason going 11-2, including sweeps of the Mariners and Yankees.

Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Astros as the (+600) preseason betting favorite to repeat as World Series champs in 2023, followed by the New York Yankees (+650), Los Angeles Dodgers (+750), New York Mets (+750), Atlanta Braves (+1000) and San Diego Padres (+1000).

It's a different scene from 2022 when the Dodgers, Braves, Yankees and even the Toronto Blue Jays all were preseason favorites over the Astros to win the World Series. In other words, Mattress Mack will load up on the Astros again this season and hopefully visit the pay window again. He just may not get the gross national product, all-time payout he got last year. Poor guy. Mack's already put down $1.9 million on the Astros, a commitment that's likely to increase as the Astros plow through the season.

The over/under wins total for the Astros is 95.5. That's a good number for an FM radio station, but the Astros should blow by that total in mid-September. The Astros won 106 games last year, and at least 100 wins in four of the last five full seasons. I wonder if Mack has room in his car for next time he drives to Louisiana to make a bet. I call shotgun!

While Altuve and Brantley sit on the wounded list Thursday, and Gurriel is wearing a Miami Marlins uniform, one thing will be the same as Opening Day last year. Framber Valdez, the Astros' quality start machine, will be on the mound against the Chicago White Sox at Minute Maid Park. The game will start at 6:08 p.m., airing on ESPN. Get there early to watch the Astros unfurl another World Series banner. Remember that AT&T SportsNet gets benched when ESPN does an Astros game. Bummer. Blummer. ESPN also has the April 16 game against the Rangers and the April 30 rematch with the Phillies.

How did Valdez perform Opening Day 2022? As it would turn out all season, typical Valdez: 6.2 innings, no runs, only two unproductive hits, one walk, six K's and he got the W. Final score:, Astros 3, Los Angeles Angels 1. Valdez started, got the win, Pressly pitched the ninth, got the save. Sound familiar? Lather, rinse, repeat. The opposing pitcher that game - some under-publicized fellow named Shohei Ohtani. It wasn't Ohtani's day. While he pitched ok, surrendering four hits and one run over 4.1 innings, he took the loss. Ohtani also went 0-4 at the plate.

The Astros won Game 2 of that series, 13-6, behind Odorizzi and a battalion of relievers. The Angels exacted revenge in Game 3, a 2-0 shutout with Noah Syndergaard starting. Verlander, despite giving up only one run over five innings, absorbed the loss.

Of course games will look different this season with no infield shift, bigger bases and a pitch timer. The only thing that will look the same - the standings. Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will salivate when they don't hit screamers through the infield only to be thrown out by second basemen playing short right field. Altuve's fractured thumb should heal in time for the future Hall of Famer to return in early June. Brantley could be back in May. Lance McCullers is anybody's guess, but time heals all wounds, including elbows.

The Astros are riding a dynasty-level of success, you know the numbers, six consecutive postseason appearances (only team in MLB history to win a postseason series six straight seasons), six ALCS appearances in a row, four World Series appearances, two championships.

There's no reason to stop now.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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