The Houston Astros are historically excellent, and that's just the half of it
Not that a reminder should be necessary, but be thankful for the sustained excellence of the Houston Astros. The Texans are quite likely going to stink again (Hey Lovie Smith, the punt at the end of overtime was weak, end of story). The Rockets are quite likely going to stink again. The Dynamo remains a mostly unknown travesty. The Astros just continue kicking butts and taking names. One way to tilt the prism and further appreciate this Astros’ era…
The Royals won the 2015 World Series and haven’t had a winning season since. The Cubs won the 2016 World Series and while they did make the playoffs three of the following four years, this is their second straight way below .500 season. The Red Sox won the 2018 World Series and last year did reach the American League Championship Series but they’re closing in on a second last place finish in three years. The 2019 Nationals won the World Series and are now the worst team in the National League. The Astros won it all in 2017 and apart from the 2020 COVID short season have been relentlessly terrific with no end to that terrific-ness (word?) on the horizon.
Taking out the trash
Off sweeping three games in Detroit over A.J. Hinch’s hapless, helpless, hopeless Tigers, the Astros get more trash to take out with a four game set against the Oakland Athletics at Minute Maid Park. The A’s are the only team in the American League with a record worse than the Tigers’ 54-89 stupor. The difference is the A’s pretty much sucked on purpose this year, trading away just about all of their best players. The Tigers fancied themselves a young up and comer that maybe could hang in the AL Central race or Wild Card picture. Um, not close.
The A’s are wretched but have won two of their last three series with the Astros, with the Astros putting the earth back on its axis by sweeping three in their most recent get together last month. The Astros should win all four this time around, though if forced to settle for three out of four that should not spark complaints. Although the Yankees have come out of their two month coma, the Astros are cruising toward the best record in the American League, so there is really no standings subplot for the Astros through the weekend. The Yankees have about the same chance (verrry slim to none) of catching the Astros for the AL top seed as the Astros do of catching the Dodgers for the best record in all of Major League Baseball and home-field advantage should they meet in the World Series.
It is spectacularly impressive that the Astros have advanced beyond the best-of-five AL Division Series for five consecutive seasons. Only two other teams have reached the League Championship Series five straight years. The Oakland A’s dynasty did it 1971-75, winning the World Series in ’72, ’73, and ’74. There was no Division Series to contend with back then. The Atlanta Braves reached the NLCS a ridiculous eight straight seasons 1991-99 (the strike of ’94 meant no postseason that year), having to win a NLDS starting in 1995.
Nonetheless, anyone thinking the Astros are not vulnerable vs. whichever team advances to face them in an AL Division Series doesn’t know how baseball works. The Astros will be the definite favorite whether they play the Mariners, Blue Jays, or Rays. None of the three is clearly a better draw for the Astros than the other two (though Florida sure would be the easiest travel). From June 19 to today, which represents more than half the season played to date, the Mariners actually have a record one half game better than the Astros. To just about lock down its first playoff spot since 2001 Seattle has gone 51-23 over the last not quite three months, the Astros 52-25. The Mariners have both a deep starting rotation and bullpen, and will fortify that pen with a starter or two moved to it. Seattle's remaining 20 games are all against losing teams, giving the M's the inside track for the top Wild Card and home-field for all games of the best-of-three first round.
The Blue Jays drifted through a lot of the season, but are 11-3 in September. Their lineup overall has been better than the Astros’ lineup because while no Jay is having a season as good as Yordan Alvarez or Jose Altuve are having, Toronto’s order is more balanced without the multiple soft spots the Astros work around. The Jays are substantially better than the Astros at four positions (catcher, first base, shortstop, center field).
The Rays are doing their usual magic. The lineup doesn’t have one 20 home run hitter (the Jays’ has five, the Astros’ four, the Mariners’ three) but the Rays cobble together enough offense to support their typically good pitching staff with good relievers seemingly conjured out of thin air. If the recently returned from injury Wander Franco rediscovers the form that made him an on the cusp of superstardom 20-year-old last season, the Rays become that much more dangerous.
Barring something calamitous happening in the A’s series, the single biggest Astro storyline is Justin Verlander’s return from calf injury to the rotation. With no setback, Verlander has four regular season starts left. He needs to win them all to get to 20.