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

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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Astros defeat the A's, 6-3. Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images.

Jake Meyers hit a three-run homer to highlight Houston's six-run fourth inning that backed Justin Verlander's winning start, and the Astros beat the Oakland Athletics 6-3 on Friday night.

Verlander (3-2) struck out nine over six innings to increase hit total to 3,377, passing Hall of Famer Greg Maddux (3,371) for 10th on the career strikeouts list. He gave up two runs — one earned — on eight hits and didn't walk a batter for a second straight start and seventh time this year.

After another milestone to add to a long list of them, Verlander wasn't sure exactly how to feel.

“I feel like I should be more excited but I feel like I’m a little more introspective and reflective,” Verlander said. “A lot of sacrifices you make in this game, a lot of time away from the family, but I love it, so it’s pretty amazing. I don’t know if as a 21- or 22-year-old kid in professional baseball if I’d thought I’d be in the top-10 in anything. This sport’s been around for so long. Hard to put into words, but a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts went through my mind.”

When his teammates celebrated him once the special outing had ended, Verlander allowed himself to ponder the meaning.

Verlander remembers his first strikeout and he recalls one against Hall of Fame slugger Frank Thomas here at the Coliseum — and the pitcher wears No. 35 because of Thomas.

“I have a lot of great memories here,” he said.

A's manager Mark Kotsay, a former Oakland outfielder, has been witness to some of those.

“He’s just tough. He’s a Hall of Fame pitcher. He knows his game plan and he executes it really well," Kotsay said. "He doesn’t make a ton of mistakes.”

Yordan Alvarez added an RBI double and Josh Hader finished the 2-hour, 31-minute game with his seventh save for the Astros, who began a seven-game road trip.

After right-hander Ross Stripling (1-9) retired the first nine Houston hitters in order, Jose Altuve singled to start the fourth for the first of four straight hits that included Alex Bregman's two-run single.

The A's drew an announced crowd of 9,676 for the series opener after winning two of three against Colorado following an eight-game losing streak.

Miguel Andujar came off the injured list and immediately hit an RBI single in the first off Verlander and finished with three hits in his A's and season debut — including another run-scoring single in the seventh.

Andjuar's RBI marked the first time the A's have scored first in 18 games — ending the longest streak in franchise history. Batting cleanup, he also singled in the third.

Astros left fielder Chas McCormick robbed Max Schuemann of an extra-base hit when he crashed into the wall to make a great catch ending the eighth.

“That was a big play at the moment,” manager Joe Espada said.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: RHP José Urquidy was pulled from his rehab start with Triple-A Sugar Land because of right forearm discomfort. He has been on the injured list with inflammation in his pitching shoulder. ... 1B José Abreu is scheduled to rejoin the club Monday in Seattle after playing at least two games with Triple-A Sugar Land as he works to regain his hitting rhythm.

Athletics: Andujar had been sidelined all season after having meniscus surgery on his right knee. He was claimed off waivers from the Pirates on Nov. 6. Oakland created roster room by optioning INF Brett Harris to Triple-A Las Vegas.

UP NEXT

RHP Spencer Arrighetti (2-4, 7.16 ERA) pitches for the Astros in the middle game opposite A's LHP JP Sears (3-3, 4.31).

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