We are approaching the final month of regular-season baseball

Astros roundup: September callups, closing in on 100 wins, and more

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After stomping the Angels to complete the weekend sweep, Houston now sits with an 85-47 record, which has them tied with the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League, and just one game behind the Dodgers for the best overall record in the league. They will wrap up the month of August with arguably their toughest remaining series in the regular season; a three-game series with the Rays here in Houston.

They should be favored to win that series considering they will have the top three of their shiny, new rotation in Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and newly acquired Zack Greinke, who is 4-0 with Houston since his July 31st trade. With their current record, the Astros would need to simply split the remaining thirty games 15-15 to finish with their third-straight 100-win season. Considering how dominant they've been against their division, it would seem they are more in line for a new franchise record.

Besting the 2018 regular season

In 2018, Houston finished the regular season with a franchise-best 103-59 record. They did so with one Cy Young candidate in Justin Verlander and one MVP candidate in Alex Bregman. In 2019, they've expanded on that, pitting teammates Verlander and Gerrit Cole against each other with what can be considered a two-man race towards the prestigious pitcher's award, along with adding another MVP-caliber player to their roster in Michael Brantley.

First, let's talk about Cole and Verlander. The teammates currently sit first and second in AL ERA with a 2.75 and 2.77 respectively. While four NL pitchers sit ahead of them for the overall league-best ERA, if you look at strikeouts, it's a different story. The strikeouts between these two aces have been quite the show to watch, with Verlander currently ahead of Cole by one at 239 vs. 238, which is good for first and second-best in the entire league. Add to that the seventh-best ERA (2.83) and thirtieth-best strikeout total (150) with Zack Greinke, and that top three of the rotation is going to be a force to reckon with in the playoffs. Then, if you get past them, you still have Wade Miley who currently sits with a 3.13 ERA, 129 strikeouts, and 1.20 WHIP.

So, no question the Astros have gotten better in terms of starting pitcher this season. But that's not all; they've also gotten better in the batting order. A little less than a month ago, I broke down the possible awards Houston could be in line for before it was all said and done in 2019. One of those awards was a batting title for Michael Brantley. My thought then, and I quote was:

He could easily heat up and outpace the two in front of him before the end of the regular season, or stay consistent, and wait for them to fall below him.

It turns out both have happened with a little more than a month left on the regular-season calendar. Brantley extended his current hitting streak to 18 games in the series finale against the Angels, which has him up to a league-best .338 average. That's right, not only is he ahead of the AL (D.J. LeMahieu sits third with a .330 average), he's leading the entire MLB in batting average. Again, considering the schedule that awaits the Astros to finish off the season, Brantley could easily stay consistent and win a batting title for his new team.

The roster only gets better in September, with perhaps a return of Tucker

When the rosters expand in September, another thing that the Astros have in their favor is some guys with major-league experience. When asked about who Houston may bring up to contribute down the stretch, A.J. Hinch stated that it would likely be guys that have seen major-league action before. While there are a few bullpen arms that fit that bill, another notable player currently on the 40-man roster that could be added to the Astros' big-league lineup to try and contribute in the final month: Kyle Tucker.

Tucker has had a phenomenal year in AAA this season, showing that he could be ready to return to the majors and prove that his lackluster debut last year was simply a fluke. In any case, since he's already on the 40-man roster and will require no penalty to be brought up, the Astros might as well throw him in the lineup to give guys like Michael Brantley and George Springer some rest days in the final month.

Beyond the expanded roster, we are once again awaiting a return of some key players from injury with Aledmys Diaz and Carlos Correa. Both are not expected to miss significant time from their recent injuries, with Diaz potentially returning on Tuesday of this week and Correa nearing a return sometime in September. That would mean, barring any truly unfortunate injuries in the coming weeks, that the Astros are basically at full strength heading into October.

If they can bring up some of the triple-A talents to fill a position in some of these easily-winnable remaining games, the Astros going into the playoffs healthy and firing on all cylinders could mean that everyone else is playing for second place, both in the ALCS and in the World Series.

Let's take a look at potential playoff matchups

Speaking of the ALCS, let's take a look at what the Astros have to gain by finishing the last 30-some days on top of the American League. As mentioned, as of Sunday night with the Yankees beating the Dodgers to win that entertaining series 2-1, that puts Houston and New York tied at 84-47 each.

Now, while there are still plenty of games to be played, I find it necessary to note that should the two teams finish tied, the Astros would get the advantage thanks to a 4-3 win in the series matchup between the two. So, let's assume that New York and Houston are locks for the playoffs as division winners. Considering that both are leading their respective divisions by 9-plus games, that seems likely. That leaves the Al-Central as the other division winner, which currently had a tight race between the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians. If the loser of that division takes one of the wild-card spots along with either the Rays or the A's, then they are playing for a chance to play in New York or Houston, where they will be underdogs to continue their season.

That's where home-field advantage becomes paramount for the Astros. Should they finish with a worse record than the Yankees and have home-field advantage for an ALDS matchup with the Indians or Twins, I would give Houston the advantage. However, if they have to play four out of seven in New York, it gets much more tricky for the Astros.

If you remember back in 2017 in the ALCS against New York, the home team won every game in that series, which, thanks to Houston's home-field advantage, made them 4-3 winners. If you look at the seven-game regular-season matchup between the two teams this season, there was a similar trend. The Astros won all three games in Houston, then managed to salvage just one of four in New York. Those games took place in the first half of the season, but it doesn't make it any less daunting to try and face this season's Yankees team on the road.

With both the Yankees and Astros playing similar schedules to finish the year, it will be hard for Houston not to get pre-occupied with the standings. But, if they can stay on top of their game and take care of business against the team on the field with them through September 29th, they should come out ahead.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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