Astros bitten by the dog days, now being dealt a lucky hand

Astros Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker
Next year's schedule will look completely different. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.
5 undeniable factors that will determine Houston Astros 2022 destiny

Lately the Astros have been putting the dog in the dog days of summer, blowing games they should have won, resting players in bunches, some missing time with unlucky injuries, others whiffing on pitches three feet off the plate (we’re looking at you, Jeremy Pena), and Dusty Baker filling out lineup cards by throwing darts at a wall.

Not to worry. The Astros are comfortably in first place, they have the best record in the American League, they’re leading their division by 11-1/2 and, most important, they’re not the Yankees. Feeling sorry for the Yankees who are sinking fast in the east? Nope.

While the Astros are playing lackluster ball heading into September, here comes Mr. Schedule Maker to save the day – and the season.

The Astros have 39 games left this season. That’s 13 series. They will play only one team that, if the season ended today, would be in MLB’s expanded playoffs.

There’s nothing wrong with the Astros that a schedule loaded with the Twins, Orioles, Rangers, Angels, Tigers, Diamondbacks and Phillies won’t cure. The only Astros opponent currently in the playoff picture is Tampa Bay. If the Astros can stay even half awake, they will waltz into the post-season with a first-round bye.

When the season ends, the Astros will have played the Rangers, Angels, Mariners, and A’s 19 games each. That’s 76 games, practically half the season, against divisional, well, we can’t really call them rivals. The Astros own the American League West.

The A’s have the worst record in the American League. Both the Angels and Rangers fired their managers during the season. The Mariners hold the distinction of being the team in America’s four major sports with the longest playoff drought. The last time the Mariners sniffed the post-season was 2021.

It’s a suck division, all right. What are the Astros even doing there? The Astros don’t have a despised nemesis in the AL West. Nobody gives a hoot about the Silver Boot non-rivalry with the Texas Rangers.

The Astros real arch enemy is the Yankees. Yankees fans despise the Astros. Astros fans relish victories over the New Yorkers, especially in the post-season.

If divisional play is supposed to create natural geographic rivalries, it’s not even close. Houston is closer to New York (1,628 miles) than to Oakland (1,914 miles) or Seattle (2,335 miles).

The Astros are eighth in MLB attendance this year, averaging 33,351 fans per game. The Dodgers are first, averaging 48,145. The Yankees are averaging 39,495. The Dodgers get to host the star-studded but troubled Padres and longtime foe Giants. The Yankees welcome the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles (all with winning records) and their bitter enemy Red Sox.

Imagine the sold-out crowds at Minute Maid Park if the Dodgers or Yankees were in town on a consistent basis. And the Astros weren’t burdened with the Mariners, A’s, Angels and Rangers over and over.

Fortunately, Mr. Schedule Maker is reducing the number of games that teams play divisional opponents next year. The Astros will play AL West teams only 14 times, which will free up at least one series against every other MLB team.

So the Astros get to play the Dodgers and Yankees and Braves and Mets and Rays and Cardinals and Cubs every year from now on. And not so many against the distant A’s and Mariners. It’s about time … and geography.

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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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