IT'S THAT KIND OF YEAR

Fear ye not: how MLB history provides plenty of reasons for Astros fans to believe

Never say never. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One day, when Dusty Baker turns in his toothpick and wristbands and leaves as Astros manager, Kenny & Ziggy's delicatessen should hire him as a cook.

Because only Baker could make chicken salad out of … the light-hitting, under-achieving, injury-ravaged 2020 Houston Astros.

Unless the roof caves in at Globe Life Field, this bamboozled band of Astros will lock up second place in the American League West and clinch a spot in baseball's post-season sometime soon, maybe tonight, possibly tomorrow, but c'mon, definitely by Sunday.

What a difference a year makes, huh? Last season, the Astros hit the hell out of the ball, finished with a team-record 107 wins and came within one dumb managerial decision of winning the World Season.

This year? Playoffs … you're talking about the playoffs? I'm not sure this has ever been done, but every regular on the Astros has a lower batting average in 2020 than last year. In this nutty coronavirus season, the Astros developed herd immunity – to scoring runs.

Even after last night's offensive explosion, 12 runs on 18 hits in a win over the Rangers, let's run down the lineup:

George Spring is hitting .264 (last year .292)

Jose Altuve .225 (last year .298)

Alex Bregman .254 (.296)

Michael Brantley .305 (.311)

Yuli Gurriel .235 (.298)

Carlos Correa .256 (.279)

Josh Reddick .243 (.275)

And the hits do stop coming.

Last year, DH Yordan Alvarez hit .313.

This year, DH Kyle Tucker is hitting .266.

More?

Last year, primary catcher Robinson Chirinos hit .238.

This year, catcher Martin Maldonado is hitting .218.

Don't look for help on the bench, either: Abraham Toro is hitting .145, Myles Straw (.211), Jack Mayfield (.179), Aledmys Diaz (.240) and Dustin Garneau (.125).

Last year's Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, 23 years old, had surgery on his two old-man knees.

The Astros pitching staff doesn't compare to last season, either. In 2019, the Astros had the two best pitchers in baseball. Gerrit Cole racked up 20 wins, Justin Verlander (21 wins). Don't forget that Wade Miley pitched in with 14 wins. This year, those three combined for one win. At least Verlander stuck around for Opening Day. The American League's save leader from last year, Roberto Osuna is MIA, too.

There you go, the 2020 Astros, limping into the playoffs, thanks to a flukey, one-year-only rule that expanded the number of teams qualifying, NHL-style.

It's hardly the first time a team foundering around .500 made the post-season.

The 1973 Mets finished 82-79 and not only made the post-season, they made it to the World Series, where they fell to the Oakland A's. The 2005 Padres finished 82-80 and made the post-season. The Texas Rangers made the playoffs with a 52-62 record, somehow winning the American League Central in strike-shortened 1994.

The first team to make the playoffs with a losing record was the Kansas City Royal in 1981. A midseason strike forced a split season, with division leaders from both halves making the playoffs. The Royals stunk up the diamond during the first half, played better the second half, and got in despite a combined 50-53 record.

Coronavirus was the Astros' MVP (most valuable pandemic) this year. Because of the shortened season, the Astros played only teams in the American League West and National League West. No fans were allowed to attend. The Astros didn't have to endure 50,000 villagers chasing them with pitchforks at Yankee Stadium. If things had been normal, surviving Astros would be wrapping up a three-game series in New York today.

This was the season when opposing pitchers were supposed to use the Astros lineup for target practice. Didn't happen. Fans weren't able to turn Oakland-Alameda Stadium into gladiator fights at the Roman Coliseum. Off with their batting helmets!

While fans weren't able to yell "cheater!" at Jose Altuve, suffering the slump of all slumps, that didn't stop Dodgers broadcaster from snickering after a called third strike … "guessing is harder than knowing." Ouch!

The silver lining on Altuve's disastrous season and 60-point drop in batting average? It's nowhere close to Norm Cash's crash landing in 1961-62. In 1961, Cash won the American League batting title with a sterling .361 average. The following year, look out below, Cash sunk to .243.

Post-season play begins next week. Bring on the White Sox or Twins or whomever. I'm sticking with my prediction that the Astros win the World Series. With this bizarre, upside-down, inside-out season, the Astros are a lock.

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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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