PEDAL TO THE METAL

Here's why reaching this critical milestone is vital for the Houston Astros

Astros Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman
The Astros still have plenty of work to do. Composite image by Jack Brame.
altuve-bregman

As the Houston Astros continue to battle with the New York Yankees for the best record in the American League and the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets for the best record in the league overall, it's no question they deserve their spot in the top five of MLB's power rankings. They continue to maintain a double-digit lead over the Mariners in the AL West, with a strong chance that they'll lock up the division with plenty of time to spare in the regular season.

At 71-40, they only need to win 29 of the remaining 51 games to reach 100 wins, making it the fourth time in the last five full seasons to accomplish that feat. According to Fangraphs, they have a 100% chance to make the playoffs, a 34.6% chance to make it to the World Series, and a 15.7% chance (third-highest odds behind the Dodgers and Mets) to win it. Yet, even still, some of the team's recent losses are a reminder that there is no room to relax, or worse, slump, down the final stretch.

Don't let the schedule fool you

When looking at the schedule and mapping out how the Astros could get those 29 wins to reach triple digits, there are a lot of soft spots where the team should be able to string together plenty of wins. They have a combined 20 games remaining against the Rangers, A's, and Angels, whom they have gone a combined 24-13 against so far in 2022.

That didn't stop a surprising three-game sweep by Oakland against these Astros at the end of July, dropping those three, which paved the way towards a 7-8 record in their last fifteen games. When not facing division foes, the Astros have several series against teams that will be fighting for Wild Card Spots like the White Sox, Braves, Phillies, and surprisingly, the Orioles.

So while the overall strength of the schedule might not be that daunting, the last thing the Astros need heading into the playoffs, where momentum is paramount, is to have had the chance to power into October with over 100 wins but instead struggle to stay dominant.

Getting the batting order back in order

What has been interesting in the recent stretch of games is that the offense has mostly told the story of their games. On the pitching side, in the current 7-8 game stretch, Houston's pitching staff averaged 3.9 runs per game in losses and an even 2.0 runs in wins. The offense, meanwhile, has a much wider variance, with 2.25 runs scored on average in defeats and 6.57 runs in victories.

They lost by a combined 13 runs in the eight losses, with several one-run losses in that mix. In terms of run differential, in losses, they averaged losing by just 1.63 runs while winning by an average of 4.57 runs. What does all this mean? It means that when they've won, it's been on big nights by the offense, and when they've lost, it's been in games they could've won with a few more clutch hits.

Losing Michael Brantley to the IL since June 26th has undoubtedly hurt the lineup, no question. Still, after the trade deadline acquisitions of Trey Mancini and Christian Vazquez, you would hope the Astros will find ways to get back to a more consistent dominance at the plate than they have shown in the last couple of weeks.

Keep the arms fresh and in the zone

Speaking of the deals the Astros made at the deadline, one move that will probably prove influential as the playoffs near is their trade which sent Jake Odorizzi to Atlanta with lefty reliever Will Smith coming back. Once you get into the playoffs, you certainly don't need a plethora of starters, but having depth at the position in the grueling parts of the season has its perks.

Now, they will form a typical five-man rotation with Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, and Jose Urquidy slotting in every five days, give or take with off days. The change may not be an issue as long as they can continue at their impressive pace, especially if they choose to bring Lance McCullers Jr. back into a starting role once he's ready to rejoin the team. But, they now find themselves with a small margin of safety should a starter miss any time.

That being said, with Verlander at the top of this rotation building his case for another Cy Young and Framber Valdez's league-leading 19 quality starts in 2022 behind him, it feels as though you are nearly guaranteed a strong start two of every five days. It also means you have a pretty potent 1-2 punch for the first two games of a postseason series, which has helped the Astros go deep into October in these recent years.

It's not even the middle of August, which, in all honesty, should make it too soon to be talking about the playoffs. However, with the Astros' dominant start and middle of the year, it remains essential that they don't let things spiral to the point of needing a reset button come October.

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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 β€˜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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