UNCHARTED TERRITORY

How the Astros upcoming stretch puts them in a strange, unfamiliar place

Astros Dusty Baker, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker
The Astros haven't dealt with must-win games in the regular season recently. Composite image by Jack Brame.
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Thomas Paine was talking about America’s fight for freedom from England in 1776 when he wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

He had no way of knowing that the Houston Astros would be six games behind the Texas Rangers and out of the playoff picture as we approach Independence Day 2023.

Yes, these are trying times for Astros fans. But for all the sniping and griping about the Astros play, their casualty list of injuries and manager Dusty Baker’s mystifying lineup decisions …

At least Astros owner Jim Crane isn’t threatening to unload underperforming, overpaid Astros players, even offering to pay other teams to take them off the Astros books – like New York Mets owner Steve Cohen pushed the panic button this week.

Wouldn’t it be something if the Mets called the Astros and said, “You want Justin Verlander back? We’ll pay the return postage.” The Mets signed JV to a two-year deal worth $86 million. He’s 2-4 at the halfway mark of the season. And the Mets are 36-44, 17 games out of first in the NL East and fading fast despite the highest payroll in baseball history.

OK, the Astros aren’t the Mets, but Houston fans are frustrated for sure, and it’s open season on questioning manager Dusty Baker’s stewardship of the team.

Why is Martin Maldonado batting in the eighth inning with two on, two out and the Astros trailing by a run? What is Astros reliever Rafael Montero doing on the mound in a close game? And, uh, what is a Bligh Madris?

The Astros are in a strange place, looking up at the Rangers, and the Angels closer than they appear in their rearview mirror.

It’s been a while since the Astros faced a critical, approaching must-win, stretch of games this early in the season. But that’s coming right up: a four-game set starting Friday against the Rangers in Arlington, followed by two against the Rockies and four with the Mariners at Minute Maid Park. We’ll know better if Astros fans can start making fall travel plans by the All-Star Game on July 11.

Even the All-Star Game will look different for Astros fans. Astros players won’t have to make excuses to stay home, like last year when the game was played at Dodger Stadium. This year, invites will be few and far between for valid reasons: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Jeremy Pena, Jake Myers, and Yordan Alvarez all have seen their batting averages slip from last year. Even Martin Maldonado’s average is lower this season, and he batted .186 last year.

Of course injuries have played a role in keeping Astros down in the All-Star voting results. And that’s another factor in Astros fans’ frustration, the team’s curious way of framing how long a player might be out of the lineup due to injury.

Here’s a guide to the Astros injury report glossary:

Astros: “Player stubbed his toe, he should play night.”

Meaning: He’s out for two or three games minimum.

Astros: “Player has slight discomfort in his leg, might sit out the weekend.”

Meaning: 10-day injury list.

Astros: “We won’t rush him back from his shoulder injury.”

Meaning: Out for the season.

Astros: “Player needs minor surgery.”

Meaning: We gather today to honor the dearly departed.

The Astros need to stop staying “when” a player will be back and start saying “if.” What exactly is the deal with Michael Brantley?

Six games behind the Rangers certainly is a pickle, and nowhere where the Astros expected to be, but it’s not desperate times. Not yet. The Astros will be in a buying posture come the trade deadline. They reportedly are searching for another bat and starting pitcher.

If you think times are rough for the Astros, how’d you like to be these teams, all with bigger payrolls than the Astros ($193 million), all with worse won-loss records: the Mets ($354 million payroll with home fans booing), San Diego ($250 million in 4th place), the Phillies ($243 million barely above .500) and the Angels ($212 million and headlines screaming bye-bye Shohei Ohtani).

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