Here's why things just got serious for the Houston Astros

The Astros are back in action this Thursday against the Yankees. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

With the All-Star Game in the rearview mirror, things get serious for the Astros in a hurry. Their break is a day shorter than most because of the schedule insertion of Thursday’s huge split doubleheader against the Yankees. Hey, at least the Astros are home. The Yankees have obviously been the best team in Major League Baseball this season. Their 64-28 record has them on pace to win an absurd 112 games. If they win 112 the Astros have zero chance of catching them for the American League’s best record, and homefield advantage in a tantalizing prospective AL Championship Series matchup. The Yankees are not likely to win 112 but they won’t need that many Ws to secure the top seed. The Astros’ come out of the second half gate with a lustrous 59-32 resume, but that’s four and a half games back of the Yankees.

The Yanks do not have Gerrit Cole pitching either game. He’s not ducking the Astros. Cole pitched Sunday so that ruled him out. Let’s summarize the twin bill outcome possibilities:

Astros sweep! That would have the Yankees in trouble. The Astros would in one day close within two and a half games, clinch the homefield tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series 5-2, while knowing they have the easier schedule the rest of the way because of the three crummy teams in the AL West as opposed to the no bad teams in the East.

Win one, lose one. The Yankees lead would hold at four and a half, but that’s overcome-able (word?) given the schedules. A split would give the Astros the season series over the Yankees 4-3, securing the tiebreaker.

Yankees win, thhhhhe Yankees win twice. The Astros would fall six and a half back. Not total doom but a massive setback, as they would also lose the tiebreaker and suddenly have a modicum of pressure their way heading to Seattle for the weekend. Kudos if you got the John Sterling allusion.

Sleepless in Seattle?

Seattle for the weekend. The Astros AL West lead is a healthy nine games (though down from 13 ½) so they don’t feel hot Mariner breath on the backs of their necks, but my oh my are the Mariners hot. They rampaged to a 14 game winning streak into the All-Star Break. Before it, they won eight of 11 so that’s 22-3 over their last 25 games. Most things have been going well for a team that rips off 22 wins in 25 games, but Seattle’s pitching has been stupendous. The Astros’ bullpen has been the best in the big leagues this year with its 2.66 earned run average. During this 25 game run, the M’s pen ERA is 1.49. The Elias Sports Bureau researched and learned that only three teams previously won even 10 in a row into the break (the first All-Star Game was played in 1933). Those teams won exactly 10 in a row, all went on to win the pennant. Settle down Seattle, you’re quite likely NOT going to the World Series. Neither the 1935 Tigers nor 1945 Cubs had to win any postseason series to reach the World Series. The 1975 Reds had to win one. The Mariners would have to win three as a Wild Card, two if they win the division. Wait, win the division? They are nine games back of the Astros.

The Astros and Mariners play three in the Pacific Northwest this weekend, then have a four game set at Minute Maid Park starting next Thursday. If the M’s won, say, five of the seven, we’d have an unexpected legitimate division race. Conversely, the Astros win four or more of them, back to sleep Seattle. The Mariners’ surge has them in command position for a Wild Card spot. Like the Astros have the schedule edge over the Yankees, the Mariners benefit from AL East cannibalism among the Rays, Blue Jays, and Red Sox (and Orioles?!?). Yes, the field is watered down with now three Wild Cards per league, but the Mariners last played a playoff game in 2001. Their ongoing drought of 20 years is the longest in big league sports in North America. That season, the Mariners posted their still franchise record 15 game winning streak, en route to an MLB record-tying 116 wins. The Astros try to deny the M’s number 15 in a row Friday night.

The million-dollar question

The prevailing Astro question out of the break…how is Yordan’s right hand? Alvarez went on the injured list and missed the last seven games because of it. Without Alvarez the Astros’ lineup is no better than mediocre. Much lesser but certainly not inconsequential issue, Michael Brantley’s status. Brantley’s ailing right shoulder is the same one that cost him nearly the entire 2016 season. Even with those guys back, General Manager James Click should be pursuing a bat to fortify the lineup (believe I’ve mentioned catcher and/or first base a time or ten). If fantasizing about acquiring Juan Soto from the Nationals, never say never but let's call it highly improbable. Soto can't be a free agent until after the 2024 season, so the Astros wouldn't need to commit a half billion dollars, but the Nats will demand a king's ransom for a superstar who is more than a year younger than Yordan Alvarez. The Astros' farm system is weak, besides, prospects alone won't cut it. Would you consider Luis Garcia, Hunter Brown, and Jeremy Pena for Soto? Even if so that might not be nearly enough. The trade deadline arrives 5PM Houston time a week from Tuesday.

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