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

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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The Astros are back in action Friday night against Seattle. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros were a season low 12 games under .500 (12-24) on May 8th but were able to turn things around and entered the All-Star break with a respectable 50-46 record.

The turnaround can be attributed to better performances on the field by a multitude of players, but there are still things that could be improved to ensure a successful second half of the season.

As it currently stands, Houston is only one game behind the Seattle Mariners in the American League West division race, and the Astros should have key players returning from injury to further bolster their playoff ambitions.

The return of the King

Kyle Tucker has been on the injured list with a shin contusion for six weeks now, and looks to return in the near future.

The Astros have done surprisingly well without their three-time All-Star outfielder thanks to contributions from guys like Joey Loperfido, Jake Meyers and Marcio Dubon in the outfield. Plus, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman, Yanier Diaz and Jeremy Pena carrying the offense while King Tuck is away.

Before getting hurt, the 27-year-old was hitting .266/.395/.584 through 60 games. Houston already has one of the best offenses in baseball, and adding Tucker back would give the Astros another high-quality bat to further bolster their lineup.

The latest update is Tucker has been playing catch and could start a rehab assignment soon if all goes well.

Fix the rotation

Starting pitching has been a major issue this season due to a multitude of injuries.

Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and J.P. France have all been lost for the year with various surgeries and guys like Justin Verlander and Luis Garcia are trying to work their way back from their injured list stints.

Garcia was recently pulled from his rehab assignment and won’t pitch again until he is ready. Meanwhile, Verlander could be closer to his return and is throwing bullpen sessions as of July 14. Getting both of these pitchers back at some point this season will be a huge boost to this roster.

The current Astros’ rotation consists of Framber Valdez, Ronel Blanco, Hunter Brown, Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss. Although not a bad rotation by any means, the starting pitching depth is getting pretty thin and Houston can ill afford another injury to their staff.

Astros general manager Dana Brown has been vocal about his desire to add starting pitching, and could have some options heading into the trade deadline. Players like Jack Flaherty, Garrett Crochet or Yusei Kikuchi, just to name a few, could be low risk high reward pitchers the Astros could acquire to add depth to their rotation.

Another option would be to call up A.J. Blubaugh from Sugar Land. The 24-year-old has a 6-2 record with a 3.46 ERA in 71.1 innings pitched this season for the Space Cowboys and could be a necessary depth piece to add to the rotation.

Play Astros baseball

The Astros have been playing better baseball as of late and have won 18 of their last 23 games. With players like Kyle Tucker and Justin Verlander potentially returning soon, there is reason to believe Houston can make the playoffs for the 8th consecutive season.

The 'Stros will try to take sole possession of first place in their division from the Mariners when the two teams meet for three games at T-Mobile Park starting on Friday night.

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