Houston plays two strong NL West teams
Big week ahead for Astros against stiffer competition
With the win on Sunday to complete the sweep of the Mariners, the Astros completed a 5-1 week against the struggling Giants and Seattle at home. The winning performances were a welcome change for Houston, who the weekend prior had just wrapped up a 3-6 road trip capped off by a sweep by the division-leading A's to send them back home with a five-game losing streak looming over their heads.
With a Rangers loss against the Rockies in Denver on Sunday, the Astros, now on a four-game winning streak, now sit in sole possession of second place in the AL West, 4.5 games behind Oakland. They took care of business against teams that the Astros of recent seasons would have no trouble with giving a glimmer of hope that even with the mounting injuries and offensive struggles of some key players, notably Jose Altuve, that the 2020 Astros may still be one of the best in the league.
First up, four against the surging Rockies
This upcoming week will probably do more to show us what this team is capable of considering the team's status and the strength of opponents. Over the seven-game slate this Monday-Sunday, the Astros will first split a four-game series with the 13-8 Rockies in a home-and-home series, starting with two at Minute Maid Park, then two at Coors Field. If the current rotation stays as scheduled, here's how the series should line up:
- Monday (COL @ HOU): Kyle Freeland (2-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. Brandon Bielak (2-0, 1.76 ERA)
- Tuesday (COL @ HOU): Antonio Senzatela (3-0, 3.91 ERA) vs. Zack Greinke (1-0, 2.53 ERA)
- Wednesday (HOU @ COL): Framber Valdez (1-2, 1.90 ERA) vs. Ryan Castellani (0-0, 1.04 ERA)
- Thursday (HOU @ COL): Cristian Javier (2-1, 2.91 ERA) vs. German Marquez (2-3, 2.25 ERA).
This schedule puts two of Houston's younger arms on the mound in the thin Denver air on Wednesday and Thursday, and against a potent Rockies offense that averages over six runs per game at home. The good news for Houston, though, is that during this past homestand, it looked like their offense may have finally gotten up to speed, especially during their nine-run outburst of an inning on Friday in Yordan Alvarez's return.
A weekend in San Diego to wrap up the week
After the Rockies, Houston's next opponent is the 11-12 Padres, with a three-game series in San Diego. Despite being third in the tightly-contested NL West, the Padres sit tenth (the Astros are eighth) in the entire league in runs scored, showing their lineup potency. So between the Rockies and Padres, the Astros are likely in for a week of back-and-forth offense with their highest chance of coming out ahead being a week full of timely hits and several longballs per game.
Let's talk about injuries and Altuve
That leads to one of the ongoing question marks in terms of injury with the Astros. Michael Brantley, one of Houston's most reliable bats, landed on the IL over the weekend, and Yordan Alvarez was a late scratch for Sunday's game with knee discomfort, something he battled with during his rookie campaign in 2019. While this lineup can afford to miss a few games without one or two bats, if you take out a Brantley and Alvarez, and throw in a struggling Altuve, all of a sudden this lineup that is usually intimidating top-to-bottom all of a sudden looks a lot more beatable towards the bottom.
Speaking of, let's address the Altuve situation. After his recent struggles, he made, in my opinion, a seasoned and self-aware decision to approach his manager and request to be moved down in the lineup. That, to me, exhibits leadership and a team-above-self mentality. Public opinion may decide how Altuve's career gets evaluated as a whole in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. Still, if he's the selfless teammate he appears to be in situations like this, then getting a spark to turn his year around in Denver may come at just the right time.
In terms of injuries, on the pitching side, mystery abounds regarding what the Astros may have available for the rest of this shortened 60-game season. Jose Urquidy is ramping up in Houston's alternate site in Corpus Christi, but no concrete timetable is available on when he may join the team, and in what capacity. Both closer Roberto Osuna and ace Justin Verlander, after initially being reported as having to miss the remainder of the year with their respective injuries, have recently been described as "working out" with hopes to rejoin the team in some capacity this year. Time will tell, but until more optimistic updates become available on some of these notable arms, the Astros will have to press on with what they have.
Nearing the halfway point
This week can prove pivotal in the short season as the Astros try to keep pace with the A's for the division lead, and the Rangers who are making a bid to take advantage of the short season to get into the playoffs as well. Quite frankly, Houston cannot afford to have another disastrous road trip like they did last time. With lingering injuries and other struggles, they may not be able to make it up down the stretch as we are already approaching the halfway point of the 2020 regular season.
In fact, after Sunday's game against the Padres, the Astros will have already put 28 of the 60 games in the books. So having a good position in the division at that point may not only be desirable, but necessary, for the ultimate outcome of this season.