NOW OR NEVER

Burning questions Houston Astros must answer as they approach home stretch

Burning questions Houston Astros must answer as they approach home stretch
Do the Astros have a clear-cut ace? Composite Getty Image.
How Houston Astros latest statement series holds critical keys to returning to championship form

You’re Astros manager Dusty Baker. It’s the last day of the 2023 baseball season and the Astros and Rangers are tied with identical 94-68 records. It’s a must-win game with the American League West title and a coveted bye in the first round of the post-season possibly at stake.

You’ve played it smart down the stretch anticipating this. All of your starters are rested and ready to take the mound.

Who are you giving the ball to?

Justin Verlander? He’s the highest paid player in baseball history, a sure Hall of Famer, the defending American League Cy Young Award winner. But he hasn’t exactly dominated since returning to the Astros and he got rocked for nine hits, two walks and five runs (four earned) over five innings in his last start.

Framber Valdez? Take away his recent no-hitter, Valdez has not been a shutdown ace in months. Since late June, his average start has gone six innings, giving up seven hits and 4.5 runs.

Cristian Javier has made it to the sixth inning only once in his last nine starts. He began the season at 7-1. Two months and 11 starts (nine no-decisions) later, he’s at 8-2. There’s talk of him going to the bullpen for the post-season.

Hunter Brown has been up and down and Jose Urquidy is coming off injury. You want to go to war in a one-game shootout with either of them?

The true ace of the 2023 Astros is rookie J.P. France who has saved this season with a hard-nosed, reliable 9-3 mark and 2.74 earned run average. Be honest, had you even heard of Jonathan Patrick France before the season started? He didn’t make his MLB debut until May 6. He’s started 16 games, won nine of them. The Astros have won all eight of his most recent starts. Looks like Clark Kent, pitches like Superman.

J.P. France is a selfie of how the entire Astros season has unfolded - unlike anything fans have seen in recent years. Used to be, you’d turn on the Astros game in the third or fourth inning (we arrive late for TV, too) and the Astros would be up 3-1 with Verlander and Valdez dealing in dominant form. This year, the score could be Astros up, Astros down, and the team is scrapping to the end. No lead is safe, no deficit fatal.

It seemed all was smooth sailing in recent years past, with Baker making all the right moves and fans appreciating their crusty, lovable, toothpick-gnawing skipper. This year, fans are pulling out their hair.

Why is Martin Maldonado batting in the eighth inning with runners on base? How much more of Jose Abreu can we take at first base? Why is Grae Kessinger in the lineup? Why is Yordan Alvarez, one of baseball’s mightiest sluggers, batting fifth? When, if ever, is Michael Brantley coming back? Now pitching for the Houston Astros, Phil Maton, oh no!

The Astros seem to be on a frustrating treadmill, and like the real treadmill you use to hang clothes at home, they appear to be going nowhere. The Astros keep winning series but can’t gain ground on the division-leading Texas Rangers. Wile E. Coyote has more success catching the Roadrunner. It’s like that Rodney Dangerfield joke. As a teenager, he borrowed $500 from a lone shark, paid him $25 a week for 30 years and still owed him $1,000.

That’s the weirdest thing of all in 2023 - the Astros are looking up at the Rangers in the standings. That’s not supposed to happen.

Still … the Astros are 70-52, 18 games over .500, and winners of eight of their last 11 games. Unless the roof falls in, they’re all but guaranteed of making the post-season. For all of this summer of discontent, there are 30 teams in baseball and only five of them have a better won-loss record than the Astros. TV ratings are up on AT&T SportsNet. Minute Maid Park is packed, averaging nearly 38,000 fans each night. That’s more than 5,000 up per game from last year when, if memory serves, they won the whole shebang.

Huge hot-ticket series against the surging Seattle Mariners, always popular Boston Red Sox, those dreaded Yankees and surprising Orioles remain on the home schedule.

Oh, there’s a little three-game set against the Rangers coming up in Arlington in early September. Astros fans might want to start planning the roadie.

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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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