The Astros host the Royals at Minute Maid this weekend. Composite image by Jack Brame.
- What a two-front battle to the finish for the Astros. And Rangers. And Mariners. Compelling stuff as the American League West and Wild Card races steam toward conclusion. We’re down to this weekend and then the final week of the regular season with it a certainty that two of the three make the playoffs. The third could make half the American League playoff field from the AL West, or miss the postseason and rue a blown opportunity.
Since finally grabbing first place for themselves with their three game baseball dismemberment of the Rangers earlier this month, the Astros have not played like a playoff team. Some would say the way they’ve played of late the Astros don’t deserve to make the playoffs. That is nonsense. All teams know the rules of engagement. 162 games count in the standings. If at the close of play a week from Sunday the Astros finish ahead of the Rangers, Mariners, or Blue Jays, they will deserve to make the playoffs. Even better, they would make the playoffs.
During their recent swoon the Astros have not been choking. Too often they’ve been stinking. Big difference, considering that calling an athlete a “choker” is about the harshest criticism one can spew. Did Alex Bregman choke with his costly throwing error on a double play ball last weekend in Kansas City? Did Ryan Pressly choke when he blew the save and game Monday night against Baltimore? Did Yordan Alvarez choke when he had four feeble at bats against the Orioles Tuesday? Is Kyle Tucker choking because he is batting .210 in September? Is Jose Altuve choking when he makes one of his too frequent confounding baserunning mistakes? No, no, no, no, and no. Failure is not automatically choking. Sometimes you just don’t play well. Also relevant, this isn’t golf where it’s the player against the course. In a team sport the opposition can just outplay you. Choking happens but it is too readily blamed for losing.
Bad teams can win short series from good teams, and the Astros reminded everyone of that by dropping consecutive series to the sad sack Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals. If this weekend they lose another series to the lowly Royals at Minute Maid Park, boooooo! I grant that would at least seem like choking. It would also mean the Astros finish the season with a losing record at Minute Maid Park. The Astros would also then be inviting the Mariners to put them to sleep in the AL West race in the massive three game series that opens Monday in Seattle. On the flip side, the Astros can make it easy on themselves by sweeping the Royals then winning at least two out of three over the Mariners.
While the Astros get the Royals this weekend, the Mariners are in Arlington for three against the Rangers. Texas and Seattle close the regular season with four more meetings next weekend in the “Emerald City” while the Astros will be in Arizona against a Diamondbacks’ team that presently holds the number two Wild Card position in the National League. Let’s say the Astros sweep three from K.C. (obviously not close to a given), then lose two of three at both Seattle and Arizona. That would be a 5-4 close resulting in a 90-72 record. Good news: either the Rangers or Mariners must lose at least four of their seven matchups. Bad news: either the Rangers or Mariners must win at least four of those matchups.
If the Rangers sweep the three-game series they have at the Angels and go 3-4 vs. the Mariners, the Rangers finish 90-72. In this scenario the Mariners would also finish 90-72. Three-way tie! The Mariners would win the division based on having the best combined record against the other two. The Astros would then get a Wild Card over the Rangers by winning the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Rangers would then need to finish at least tied with Toronto. The Rangers have the tiebreaker over the Blue Jays. So do the Mariners. The Astros lose the tiebreaker to the Jays. Unless the Astros sweep the Mariners next week, the Astros can only win the three-way division tiebreaker if the Rangers win exactly four of their seven games against the Mariners.
As suggested in this column last week, the Astros have properly altered their starting rotation ahead of the Mariners series. Justin Verlander goes in the opener Monday with Framber Valdez in the Wednesday finale. Verlander has been pretty average since rejoining the Astros with four good starts, three poor starts and two middling starts, adding up to a 3.93 earned run average. Still, there is zero question that if an Astros’ fan you’d rather see Verlander starting than J.P. France or Hunter Brown. Cristian Javier goes in the Tuesday game.
There are times in life when you will or you won’t, you do or you don’t. If the Astros win enough of their final nine games, they have a shot to defend their World Series championship. If not, quite an interesting offseason gets a surprisingly early start.
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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up at 4PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets such as:
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.