Battle plans: How Astros can successfully plot an optimal postseason path

Battle plans: How Astros can successfully plot an optimal postseason path
The Astros are back in action on Friday. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Houston Astros title defense could come down to 3 critical factors

The Astros couldn’t have slammed the door on their fellow American League West contenders this week, but they didn’t have to open the door a bit wider for the Rangers and Mariners. The odds didn’t favor the Astros losing two out of three at home to the woeful Oakland A’s, but que sera sera. That extends the drama about who wins the division. Should the Astros wind up not winning it, their confounding mediocrity at Minute Maid Park this season will be a remembered culprit. A 38-37 home mark simply is not title-worthy. However, their 45-27 road mark certainly is, and they need to tack on several more wins to it, starting with this weekend’s three game set at pathetic Kansas City. At 46-101 the Royals sit a half game worse than the A’s in the “chase” for the worst record in Major League Baseball.

In feebly losing the first two games to Oakland the Astros didn’t choke against the A’s. They merely stunk and were outplayed. It happens. The offense was snuffed in the first loss, Justin Verlander got lit up in the second. That’s not choking, it’s failing. Even had the Astros not salvaged the last game and instead been swept, it wouldn’t have meant they choked. Did the Rangers choke last week in Arlington? Or was it the Astros playing tremendously and kicking the crap out of them three in a row? The concepts aren’t mutually exclusive, but it was much, much more about the Astros putting on a dominant display. The A’s just plain beat the Astros Monday and Tuesday.

As pitiful as the A’s are, they still win more than 30 percent of their games. The Astros are obviously not a great team, they lose more than 40 percent of their games. The won-loss percentage gap between the good and the dregs is much smaller in MLB than it is in the NFL and NBA. It’s just how the sports are. Unless Patrick Mahomes was injured or suddenly retired beforehand, the Texans beating the Chiefs two out of three is inconceivable. The A’s taking two of three from the Astros was surprising and for Astros’ fans exasperating and perhaps a bit unnerving, but it should not have been shocking to anyone. Hence, it would be shame on the Astros if they go into K.C. with any sort of “We’re great on the road, the Royals are lousy, we got this.” mentality.

Credit to the Rangers for responding from the beatdown the Astros put on them. After that the Rangers lost a series opener to the A’s last Friday and were really teetering. They haven’t lost since, taking two from Oakland and then rolling to a four game sweep of a huge series at Toronto. The Mariners meanwhile rebounded from dropping two of three at the crummy Mets and the first of a series with the also-ran Angels to win their last two. So here we are. The Astros enter the weekend one half game ahead of the Rangers (tied in the loss column with the Astros owning the tiebreaker) and a game and a half ahead of the Mariners (one better in the loss column but the Mariners own the tiebreaker). The Rangers are at Cleveland this weekend. Business is business, so if you’re an Astros fan choke down that bile for a “Go Dodgers!” weekend with the Dodgers in Seattle for three. To start next week the Astros are back home (uh oh!) for three vs. the outstanding Orioles, the Rangers are home for the playing out the string Red Sox, the Mariners get three at Oakland.

After that it is fabulously beneficial to the Astros that the Rangers and Mariners have seven head-to-head meetings over the season’s final 10 games. That guarantees that either the Rangers or Mariners lose at least four of them, which makes it highly likely that the Astros at least snag a Wild Card unless the Astros reeeally falter. While the natural focus is on winning the West again, should the Astros falter and finish behind both the Rangers and Mariners, they are not out of the woods from missing the playoffs completely. They are three games ahead of Toronto, though the Blue Jays hold the tiebreaker over the Astros. The Jays’ final 15 games are all within the AL East: six vs. the Rays, six vs. the Yankees, three vs. the Red Sox).

The Astros have virtually no shot at finishing with the best record in the AL. That will belong to the AL East winner, Baltimore or Tampa Bay. The Rays took the opener of a four game series in Maryland Thursday night to get within one game of the Orioles. Just one win gives the Orioles the season series tiebreaker.

Until things are settled, every game is critical, but none more so than the Astros’ three at Seattle September 25-27. Dusty Baker and staff have tweaking to do with the starting rotation if Verlander and Framber Valdez are to make starts in that series. Valdez goes this Sunday in Kansas City. He needs to jump ahead of J.P. France’s turn Friday at MMP vs. the Royals so Framber can have four days rest ahead of starting the series finale against the Mariners the following Wednesday. That would also have Valdez available on three days rest for the regular season finale at Arizona, should game 162 be critical. Verlander’s next scheduled turn is Monday vs. Baltimore. His next start after that should be the following Monday in the opener in Seattle. So the decision needs to be made whether Verlander is better off pitching Monday and not again until the following Monday, or pushing his start vs. the Orioles to Tuesday.

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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 ‘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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