THE PALLILOG

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.

Looking for more Astros coverage?

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:

Apple Podcasts

AudioBoom

Google Podcasts

iHeart

RSS

Spotify

YouTube

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome