How shifting playoff landscape impacts Houston Astros trajectory

Astros Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman
The Astros open a 3-game series with Arizona on Friday night. Composite image by Jack Brame.
How MLB media's Astros disrespect has reached another level

The sports cliché about controlling one's own destiny is oxymoronic given the very definition of destiny. So let's say the Astros have the ball in their own court. Their job is not done but with their season perilously close to bleeding out that was a timely baseball tourniquet the Astros applied in winning two out of three in Seattle.

The Astros' dream scenario entering their regular season-ending series at Arizona is simple: The Astros sweep three while the Mariners win at least two of the remaining three games in their series with the Texas Rangers. The Astros would win the American League West outright if the Mariners sweep. If the Mariners win two of three, the Astros and Rangers would both finish 90-72, the Mariners 89-73, with the Astros winning the division title and bye into the Division Series by virtue of the Astros owning the Astros-Rangers season series tiebreaker.

If the Astros win two of three in the desert to close 89-73 they are in as a Wild Card.

If they drop two of three in the desert the Astros are out entirely if the Mariners take two of three from the Rangers. The Astros lose tiebreakers to both the M's and Toronto Blue Jays.

If the Astros get swept, F%#%^$! Backing in would require the Mariners winning no more against the Rangers.

The Astros have no walkover in Arizona. The Diamondbacks are positioned to get a National League Wild Card but haven't clinched, so the Astros will face the D'Backs "A" team at least Friday, including ace starting pitcher Zac Gallen. In one game you never know, but Gallen is clearly better than Astros' Friday starter J.P. France.

The Mariners' dramatic win Thursday night means the Astros cannot clinch a playoff spot until Saturday at the earliest. It would have been huge to wrap up a Wild Card Friday. Now, unless the Astros opt to go with Hunter Brown (um, no) or Jose Urquidy, Justin Verlander is their starter Saturday. With the Wild Card series slated for Tuesday/Wednesday/if necessary Thursday, Verlander pitching Saturday takes him out of the Wild Card series until a prospective decisive game three, presuming starting the 40-year-old Verlander on three days rest in game two (if the Astros were facing elimination) would be off the table.

If the Astros were the Mets or Yankees during the 4-12 fade the Astros posted, along the way there probably would have been a typically understated New York Post headline reading “Breggy Bum.” Bregman's salsa certainly has more kick to it than his performance down the stretch has had. He enters the Arizona series with a paltry three hits in his last 36 at bats (batting average .083), seven hits in his last 54 at bats (.130).

Bregman's very up and down season has had multiple stretches during which he's been awful.
Bregman turns 30 years old two days after the 2024 season opener. His contract is up after next season. Over the last four seasons Bregman is a .260 hitter who does draw a lot of walks. He's been an above average offensive player, but closer to average than to great. And while he has tremendous hands defensively, Bregman has committed a career-worst 15 errors. Injuries have curtailed his games played in multiple seasons, but last year Bregman played in 154 games and made just seven errors.

Bregman isn't worth a mega-dollar long term extension that starts when he's 31. The sticky spot for the Astros is their weak farm system has no quality prospect emerging as a comparable successor, unless perhaps this year's first round draft pick Brice Matthews is projectable as a third baseman.

If during the Astros' skid you were thinking “This is the worst choke job ever!” that's understandable, but it wasn't. Which is not saying going 2-7 vs. the sad-sack A's and Royals was anything better than pitiful.

The most famous blown postseason spot of all-time award probably goes to the 1964 Phillies. That was in the pre-divisions era meaning the postseason consisted of just the World Series. The Phils led the National League by six games with just 12 to play. They then lost 10 in a row. In what could be fairly called foolish desperation, during the collapse manager Gene Mauch repeatedly used his two best starting pitchers on just two days rest. After dumping 10 straight, the Phillies won their final two games, and finished one game behind St. Louis which went on to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

The Phillies were on the other end of the choke stick in 2007 when the New York Mets managed to puke up the seven game NL East lead they held with only 17 games left. The Mets 5-12 el foldo enabled the Phils to overtake them and win the division by one game. The last day of the season the Mets could have forced a one game playoff with a home win over the then Florida Marlins. Instead, future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine lasted just one-third of an inning getting blasted for seven runs and that was that.

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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 4PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets such as:

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The Texans will have to shuffle the o-line once again. Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

“Another one!”- DJ Khaled

That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.

The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.

Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!

One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.

As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.

To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.

I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.

The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.

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