PEDAL TO THE METAL

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

The Astros still have plenty of work to do. Composite image by Jack Brame.

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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These next six games will be very telling. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Houston has six games left in the 2022 regular season, two three-game series in which they need just one more win, or a Yankees loss, to secure the top seed for the AL side of the postseason bracket. They've accomplished what they set out to do over the 162-game drudge that is the regular season, so you're likely to see them use the opportunity to get some players off their feet in the remaining games.

Even so, having one of the best teams means that while putting out a lineup with some starters missing, they can still beat most teams on any given day. So then, what could that mean for the teams still vying for postseason spots or positioning in the remaining games?

Affecting the NL playoffs

It's a relatively sure bet that if they haven't locked up that top seed by the time they enter the final three games, they will before that last series is over. That means that when the Phillies come to Minute Maid Park to close out the season next week, Philadelphia will have much higher stakes in those games than Houston.

Under the expanded playoff format starting this season, the two best teams in each league receive a bye, while the remaining four teams square off in a Wild Card series, with all those games taking place at the better seed's stadium. That means teams will be very motivated to secure their best Wild Card positioning.

As of now, the Phillies hold just a half-game lead over the Brewers for the third and final Wild Card spot for the National League. Things could change this weekend, but whether they still lead or have fallen back and have ground to makeup, the games will matter to them against the Astros.

They also sit 2.5 games behind the Padres, meaning that Philadelphia could potentially be looking at a chance to jump into the second Wild Card spot. However, it's questionable if that's an envious position or not. With the juggernaut battle between the Mets and Braves coming down to the wire, with one team winning the NL East and a first-round bye and the other starting with home-field advantage in a Wild Card series, whoever gets the second Wild Card spot is going to be heading to face a really tough, and potentially angry, team on the road.

It will make things interesting for the Phillies when they face the Astros. They could be playing for their playoff lives or jockeying for position. Either way, the games will be meaningful.

Affecting the AL playoffs

There's a similar scenario at play for the American League side of things with the Astros' three-game series against the Rays this weekend. Just like the Phillies, the Rays enter the weekend holding on to the third and final spot in the AL Wild Card race.

Tampa Bay is only 0.5 games back of the Mariners for the second spot and two games back of the Blue Jays for the first Wild Card spot. Farther behind, the Orioles still have a chance for something crazy to happen, sitting five games behind.

So based on the result of their series with the Astros and how the other teams fare this weekend and in the final stretch of games, the Rays have a range of outcomes that could cause havoc in the AL bracket. They could end up taking the top Wild Card spot and hosting a series, traveling to face the Blue Jays, Mariners, or Guardians, or, less likely, missing the playoffs altogether.

This variance in positioning could have ramifications for the Astros directly in the ALDS round as well. The Astros are likely to be favored regardless of the three potential teams they face; however, some matchups would make things easier.

Houston went 2-4 against the Blue Jays this year and are currently up 3-0 on the Rays with the three games remaining in the season series. And while the Astros took the season series 12-7 against division-rival Seattle, that could give the Mariners all the more reason to be ultra-motivated for the ALDS if they faced the Astros.

So, while the Astros may not have any direct milestones to play for other than locking up their top seed, these remaining six games will have plenty of storylines and drama to follow for them and their opponent.

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