How Houston Astros must now lean into new tools to topple familiar foes

The Astros have some tough series looming. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Finally the Astros-Rangers rivalry is real. The “Silver Boot Series” has been merely marketing. When both teams are good and chasing the same division title with competitive animosity thrown in, the Astros-Rangers heat is better than Texans-Cowboys can ever be.

Had the Astros finished off a three game sweep of the Rangers this week to tie them for first place in the American League West, many an Astros homer would have felt as if the Astros shipped the upstaters out of town in a pine box. That of course would have been ridiculous with the calendar having not yet clicked to August. There is also pre-trade deadline player movement to see about. Alas, the Rangers came up with their biggest win in nearly seven years Wednesday to get out of town with a two game lead (the Rangers had no big wins 2017-22 since they were no good that whole time). However, in taking five of seven games from the Rangers this month the Astros lead the season series 6-4 for the tiebreaker should the American League West come down to it.

Having won Monday and Tuesday and jumping to a 3-0 first inning lead Wednesday, the Astros had all the momentum! Blah, blah, blah. 13 unanswered Rangers runs later served as the latest reminder that momentum is merely something you have until, poof! And it’s gone. While momentum is more bromide than meaningful, the Astros finally having back Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez means a lot. Provided both stay healthy and perform at a reasonable level of production. The Rangers soon get back Corey Seager who is having a better season than both Altuve and Alvarez.

The Astros had an easier schedule than the Rangers over recent weeks but now don’t play any lousy teams for almost the next month. Three games at Minute Maid Park vs. the Rays this weekend are followed by three vs. the Guardians, four at the Yankees, three at the Orioles (after a stop at the White House), three vs. the Angels, three at the Marlins, three vs. the Mariners, then four vs. the Red Sox before the Astros next get a relative chump when they travel to Detroit.

Over the same time frame the Rangers have three games vs. the lousy White Sox and three vs. the much worse A’s. The Astros and Rangers have one series remaining with games Labor Day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Arlington. After that the schedule clearly favors the Astros, including three games with the A’s and six vs. the just about as bad Royals. The Rangers’ only joke opponent in September is the A’s for three. That sounds great, but we have to see who is still in the hunt come late-September and who is playing out the string. The Rangers final 10 games include seven vs. the Mariners, three against the Angels.

Bring on the Rays

It's a staggering Tampa Bay Rays’ club here for the weekend. Their record-tying 13-0 start that grew to a spectacular 29-7 mark through 36 games probably feels like it happened a couple of years ago to the Rays. Since 29-7, the Rays have gone 33-36 and now look up at the Orioles in the AL East standings. They certainly still project to make the playoffs but are no lock. The Rays have a fabulous farm system and could be very bold ahead of the trade deadline. Friday night the Rays pitch their Cy Young candidate ace Shane McClanahan who is 11-1, 2.89. For the Astros it’s Cristian Javier still trying to reestablish himself as trustworthy. After getting destroyed to the tune of a 9.14 ERA over his last five starts before the All-Star break, Javier’s first two post-break starts have been not awful, but not strong. Three runs in five innings vs. the Angels followed up by five and two-thirds innings of one-hit six-walk ball against the joke that is Oakland qualify as some progress but not quality.

Trade deadline looming

The Angels are not trading Shohei Ohtani, and made the first big move of the final days run to the trade deadline in landing Astros’ target Lucas Giolito from the White Sox Wednesday night. The Angels gave up two prospects, one considered among the top 100 in the minor leagues. The Astros' farm system has no top 100 prospect (outfielder Drew Gilbert comes closest). Nevertheless, even playing a short prospect stack, General Manager Dana Brown will have failed if he does not add a starter and/or reliever of consequence. Pitching is the clear more pressing need but a hitter would be welcomed too. Specifically someone who could be a decent designated hitter when Altuve is playing second and Alvarez is in left. Jake Meyers hasn’t hit worth much all season. Corey Julks had one nice spurt but is presently three for his last 43 (that’s an .070 batting average). DHing Altuve more to play Mauricio Dubon at second? No thanks. Dubon's water is finding its level, and in his case that's not a good thing. Over the last three weeks Dubon is 10 for 66 (.152) with not one walk drawn. Of course, adding a DH bat is rendered largely moot if Dusty Baker absurdly insists on continuing to catch Martin Maldonado nearly 75 percent of the games, leaving Yainer Diaz to DH.

Vive Le France!

When describing the country the article is feminine, “Vive La France!” J.P. has been all man and a sensational, unforeseeable boon to the Astros’ starting rotation. The 28-year-old was not remotely on the radar as a starting pitching candidate for this season. His seven innings zero earned runs mastery of the Rangers Tuesday has France’s record at 6-3 with a 2.87 earned run average in 14 starts. Incroyable! Incredible and/or amazing (showing off my high school French). For his minor league career France has a 3.73 ERA. The key to his leap is simple. It certainly isn’t electric stuff. It is vastly improved control. Over his five seasons with time in the minors France walked an average of four-point-three batters per nine innings. As an Astro France has slashed that walk rate by 40 percent to two-point-six per nine, walking just 24 batters in 84 2/3 innings pitched. France has obviously blown past Hunter Brown as the Astros’ top rookie.

More Astros on tap!

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

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A lot of the issues that have plagued the Astros this season were on full display on Monday night, as the team coughed up a 2-run lead in the ninth to fall to the Orioles, 8-7.

Houston had a chance to tie the game up in the bottom of the ninth with a runner on third base and only one out. But as we've seen over the course of the season, the club wasn't able to get a timely hit in a big spot and it cost them big.

With the Astros scratching and clawing to win the division this year with only 11 games left, we wonder, where does most of the blame fall for the team's performance this season?

If we assigned a percentage of blame to these three categories (underperformance, injuries, Dusty Baker's lineup decisions) how would we divvy it up?

Plus, with so many fans and media calling for Dusty Baker to be fired, we have to wonder. Would a different manager fix what's been ailing the Astros this season?

Be sure to watch the video above as the guys break it all down.

If you enjoy the videos, subscribe to SportsMap Houston for even more Astros coverage.

And listen to The Bench with John Granato and Lance Zierlein weekday mornings on ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 FM.

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