All the undeniable reasons Astros playoff push hits different this year

All the undeniable reasons Astros playoff push hits different this year
The race for the AL West crown will go down to the wire. Composite Getty Image.

It was Branch Rickey who said that “Baseball is a game of inches.” A seeing-eye single that eludes both the third baseman and shortstop. A home run that nicks the foul pole. An errant throw that just barely pulls the first baseman off the bag.

But as Astros fans realized Thursday morning, baseball also is a game of percentage points. The ESPN scroll said, “Mariners and Astros remain tied for first place in the American League West.”

Well, yes and no. Because teams don’t play the same number of games by certain dates on the calendar, technically (more mathematically) the Seattle Mariners are in first place by themselves and the Astros are trailing in second place.

By one measly, stinkin’ percentage point. That's a difference usually reserved for bobsled racing and mortgage rate hikes.

If you could somehow put the Hubble Telescope inside the Mount Palomar Telescope, the Astros and Mariners would still look tied for first place in the whisper-close American League West – the tightest division in MLB with its three top teams separated by only one game. Don’t forget about the Texas Rangers sitting alone in third place, one game out.

The Mariners are 76-57, good for a .571 percentage. The Astros are 77-58, good for a .570 percentage. You’d have to squint to see the space between them. The Astros and Mariners both will finish with 162 games in the books, but if somehow the season were to end today, the Mariners would get the first-round bye in the playoffs, while the Astros would have to play a best-of-three wild card series that eats up pitching.

There is a silver lining to the Astros finding themselves in an uncustomary close race for the division lead. September starts Friday and the Astros schedule is packed with meaningful, potentially nerve-racking games that should keep fans’ eyes glued to the out-of-town scoreboard. That’s something relatively new around here.

Since 2017 when the Astros won their first World Series and their dynasty began, the Astros have made a mockery of September. In the past five full MLB seasons, the Astros won the American League West by a runaway 16 games in 2022, by five games in 2021, by 10 games in 2019, six games in 2018, and a crazy 21 games in 2017.

Consider this, after a shaky 3-6 start to the season, the Houston Astros haven't spent one day in sole possession of first place this year.

There’s nothing like a tight pennant race to keep the home ballpark filled right to the end of the season. Remember how devastating it was when the Mariners showed up Aug. 18-20 and swept the Astros at Minute Maid Park? Or when the Astros went up to Boston this week and dispatched the Red Sox three straight?

Well, strap yourselves in for September when the Astros host the dreaded Yankees this weekend at Minute Maid, then travel to Arlington for three games against the Rangers next week, and visit Seattle for a three-game showdown on Sept. 25-27. The Astros finish at home on Sept. 29 to Oct. 1 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Every game from here on out could mean the difference between winning the American League West pennant and finishing second or even third.

It’s going to be fun and, sure, at some moments excruciating. Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.”

Not here. We’re on the triumph train at Minute Maid Park.

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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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