THE PALLILOG

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

Astros Kyle Tucker, Ryan Pressly, Yordan Alvarez
The Astros open a series with Detroit on Friday night. Composite Getty Image.
How Rangers' big gamble could pay huge dividends for Astros

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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With both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers making their way back from surgeries that sideline that Astros pitchers last season, and given the team's thin depth in their starting rotation, Houston fans and media have waited on bated breath for scraps of information to leak out of the notoriously secretive organization regarding their progress.

In a week full of mostly Hurricane Beryl-related bad news, the Astros organization had some discouraging news of their own when manager Joe Espada told the media that Lance McCullers has been shut down from pitching after his arm did not respond well to his latest bullpen session. The team says they are "formulating a plan for what's next."

Another Astros starter making his way back from injury is HOF-bound Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the IL since June 16th with neck discomfort and, while there was initial hope that JV would only miss a start, his status has become increasingly murky as he is still apparently not close to returning.

Shifting from the health questions of the starters to the performance questions of the bullpen, some Houston fans have voiced concern via social media that Astros big-ticket 9th inning pitcher Josh Hader is not looking like a "shut-down" closer. Hader gave up more home runs in the first week of July (3) as he did the entire month of June (2).

In this week's episode of Stone Cold Stros, Charlie Pallilo and Brandon Strange discuss how the fluid dynamics of Astros pitching is impacting the competitive landscape of the division race. To watch the conversation, just click the video YouTube embedded in this article. To listen to the entire episode on podcast, search "Stone Cold Stros" in your favorite podcast app or click one of the following links.

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