Everything you need to know about Astros remaining playoff paths, opportunities

The Astros open a series with Detroit on Friday night. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros have off every remaining Thursday in the regular season. Perhaps they misread the schedule and thought Thursdays off began this week. It’s just one game and losing 17-1 counts the same as losing in extra innings (in which the Astros are 1-8 this season after blowing Wednesday’s game), but it was a latest reminder that the Astros’ superteam status is gone. It is laughable that some still espouse the notion that the Astros remain a great ball club.

They have already lost one more game than they did all last season in finishing 106-56. They are 9-1 this year vs. the helpless Athletics and 9-4 vs. their perennial stooge the Angels. Against everybody else the Astros are 54-52. The good news is that if the Astros get in the playoffs they are capable of an excellent month (as is any team that makes the playoffs) and winning another World Series. The bad news is that “if” has grown significantly. With a chance to basically put away the Mariners and Red Sox from making the playoffs at the Astros’ expense, the Astros’ 2-5 egg lay of a homestand has them in a serious battle to get into the postseason for a seventh consecutive year.

Winning the American League West remains the upside goal and it is there to be taken. The Astros enter the weekend just one game behind the staggering Texas Rangers (losers of seven straight), but if the Rangers hold on and win the West (or Seattle wins it), the Astros’ snaring one of the three AL Wild Cards is dicey. The Astros open the final weekend of August third in the Wild Card standings, six games behind the Tampa Bay Rays and percentage points back of the Mariners. If winning the division is ultimately not to happen for the Astros, the third Wild Card would be fine since it means drawing the champ of the feeble AL Central (probably Carlos Correa and the Twins) instead of the AL East runner-up, Rangers, or Mariners.

Problem is, the Astros are just a game and a half ahead of Toronto for fourth in the Wild Card Standings. Fourth means elimination. The Blue Jays next 15 games are against losing teams: three each vs. the Guardians, Nationals, Rockies, A’s, and Royals. With the Mariners’ next two series at home vs. the Royals and A’s, the Astros are probably at least temporarily dropping out of Wild Card position sooner than later. The Astros get a marshmallow soft schedule window in September over a 12 game stretch in which they get the Royals six times and the A’s three.

Remember, the Astros lose the tiebreaker to both the Blue Jays and Mariners. If they don’t win at least two out of three at Fenway next week, the Astros will also lose the tiebreaker to the Red Sox who are only three and a half games behind them. The Astros lead the Rangers 6-4 head-to-head with three games looming in Arlington starting Labor Day. Pedigree says the Astros get in, but pedigree doesn't always hold, or for instance the Astros don't win it all in 2017.

This weekend the Astros are in Detroit against A.J. Hinch’s Tigers. The Tigers are not good but they’re not absurdly bad. They are 9-6 over their last 15 games (the Astros are 7-8). The Tigers’ offense is poor and Framber Valdez badly needs to make it look that way as he starts the series opener. Framber comes off getting flambéed by Seattle. Framber getting flambéed has become all too frequent an occurrence. Over his last nine starts Valdez has a bloated 5.82 earned run average and that is including his no-hitter vs. Cleveland. Saturday Hunter Brown pitches in his hometown. Hitters have been right at home against Brown too often for too long. Since his fast start in April ended with a 2.37 ERA, Brown’s ERA is 5.16. Over six starts since the All-Star break it’s 5.91. At least Justin Verlander goes Sunday coming off of his best start since rejoining the Astros. The Astros not taking at least two out of three would feel ominous and be problematic, though not quite catastrophic.

Some quick-fire stuff…

As the Astros’ starting rotation continues to be a huge problem, did you know that over his last three starts Charlie Morton has pitched 18 scoreless innings for the Atlanta Braves? When the Astros signed Morton before the 2017 season his career record was 46 wins and 71 losses. Since then he is a spectacular 83-40 (“Ground Chuck” went 29-10 in his two seasons as a ‘Stro). After Thursday’s Beantown beatdown of J.P. France, the 39-year-old Morton’s 3.37 earned run average is better than anyone has in the Astros’ rotation (Verlander is at 3.38 in four starts). Morton has a 20 million dollar salary this season. Lance McCullers is making 17 mil to be part-owner of a coffee bar at Minute Maid Park. That’s the way the biscotti crumbles sometimes.

Yordan Alvarez has gone 14 games played, 53 at bats, and one slamming his own finger in a door since his last home run.

Jeremy Pena last homered July 5. That’s 151 at bats without one.

You think as Martin Maldonado was getting knocked around while pitching the ninth inning of Thursday’s debacle he was thinking “Man, I wish I got to pitch to Martin Maldonado.”?

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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 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets such as:

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The Texans host the Steelers at NRG this Sunday. Composite Getty Image.

What: Texans vs. Steelers

When: 10/1 12pm CST kickoff

Where: Houston, TX NRG Stadium

TV/Radio: KHOU-TV, KILT-Radio

Betting Lines: Steelers -2.5 (-120), O/U 42 (-110) *As of this writing

The Watt Brother Bowl takes place on Sunday. I'm calling it that because the Texans are honoring their all-time great J.J. while they're playing his younger brother and current hell raising edge rusher for the Steelers T.J. The Steelers have won four of the last five matchups vs. the Texans by an average score of 28-17. The biggest difference is that the Steelers have a second year starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett, and the Texans have a rookie in C.J. Stroud. When you look at the two quarterbacks, both organizations have full faith in each guy. Both teams have tried to build a defense to help their young signal callers. Both are still trying to surround their franchise guys with weapons.

When the Steelers have the ball: Here's a game where Will Anderson Jr can make headway as a proven EDGE. Stacking consistent performances together and helping your team win games by making winning plays. It helps that Pickett has tiny hands. This was a knock on him during draft season last year. Hand size for a quarterback impacts grip. That can not only impact accuracy, but it could make it easier to strip the ball from him.

While he doesn't have the weapons to torch this defense, Pickett does hand the ball off to Najee Harris who's more than capable. Averaging only 67 yards rushing as a team can't be taken lightly. Denzel Perryman is expected to miss the game Sunday, so hopefully that won't help jumpstart the Steelers' run game. The Texans defense will have to key in on the run, given that they average giving up 117 a game on the ground. Those aforementioned weapons may not be scary, but the injuries to the defensive backs has hurt. Tavierre Thomas is expected to miss the game recovering from hand surgery. Jimmie Ward coming back last week showed what happens when they have a top safety back there, especially when the pass rush is turning up. Hopefully, the Texans can capitalize again this week, with safety Jalen Pitre expected to return to action.

When the Texans have the ball: Good luck stopping Tank Dell and Stroud! These guys have already established themselves as a formidable duo three games into their careers. A great way to get that connection going is to pound the rock. The Steelers are giving up over 150 yards on the ground per game so far this season. That's also a good way to keep T.J. at bay while J.J. watches. With Laremy Tunsil and Josh Jones both expected to miss the game, here are the offensive line starters: Austin Deculus, Kendrick Green, Jarrett Patterson, Shaq Mason, and George Fant.

Making the younger Watt brother slow down a bit instead of going balls to the wall after Stroud because a run could be coming will help the pass game tremendously. Stroud will have to continue to make quick decisions, but even quicker this game. I wouldn't be surprised to see his first pick of his career here, given the pressure he's most likely to be under. Especially when your offensive line starters were mostly all backups to begin this season.

Outcome: I failed to place a money line bet on the Texans last week because the game started and the live bet wasn't as profitable. I wanted to take a chance on them given their recent record against the Jags. Looking at their last five vs. the Steelers, one would say why make that bet this week? It's because I believe in Stroud more than I believe in Pickett. While T.J. Watt is a different kind of monster, Will Anderson Jr is on his way to becoming something special. Texans win/cover, and hit the over, but barely: Texans 24, Steelers 20.

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