DESTINY AWAITS

5 undeniable factors that will determine Houston Astros 2022 destiny

The Astros play a doubleheader against the Yankees Thursday. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Although the Astros have played over 56 percent of their regular season games, the All-Star break still signifies the "halfway" point of the MLB season. Houston ended the first half with a loss to Oakland but has otherwise had a successful season thus far, as evidenced by their list of All-Stars, including Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, Justin Verlander, and Framber Valdez.

While Altuve and Alvarez sat out the mid-summer classic to rest injuries, and Verlander didn't get playing time due to his recent start, Tucker and Valdez got their first taste of All-Star play. Tucker had a few innings in the outfield, and Valdez appeared for an efficient scoreless inning, coming the half-inning before the AL put up the three winning runs, giving him the win in the scorebook.

Baseball's attention now shifts to October and the path to it, which will play itself out over the next two months and change. Here are some things specifically for the Astros to keep an eye on:

Starting with a bang

Houston enters the resumption of regular-season play with the third-best record in baseball and second in the AL, sitting at 59-32 behind the Dodgers at 60-30 and the Yankees at 64-28. They'll welcome the Yankees into town for a doubleheader on Thursday to cap off the seven-game regular-season series against New York that was initially supposed to happen in April but shifted due to the delayed start with the offseason's lockout.

Houston has taken three of the first five matchups in 2022, meaning they'll take the season series if they can grab at least one game of the doubleheader. In terms of other marquee matchups for Houston in the second half, they'll welcome in the Red Sox for three games at the beginning of August, travel to Atlanta for a World Series rematch on August 19th, and then head back to Houston to host Carlos Correa's return when the Twins come to town on August 23rd.

Keeping the Mariners at arm's length

After the quick doubleheader with the Yankees, the Astros will have the challenge of facing the surging Mariners for seven games over a ten-game span, the final time the teams will square off in the regular season. Seattle is red-hot right now, having not lost a game since July 1st and rattling off fourteen in a row to go from 37-42 to 51-42 and taking over as Houston's biggest threat in the division, for now, by improving from 13.5 games back to 9.

It's a significant drop from the Mariners in second place to the rest of the AL West, with the Rangers sitting third at 17.5 games back and a losing record of 41-49. If Houston can find a way to win the majority of the upcoming seven games, it may make their path to another AL West division win that much easier.

Looking ahead to August and September, the Astros will have the chance to feast on the lesser teams of the AL West, with the Rangers, Angels, and A's accounting for over a third of their remaining games. If they handle business against the Mariners in the next couple of weeks, they could have the division virtually locked up very early.

Regaining strength for the playoff push

A benefit of the short stretch of days off for teams over the All-Star break is it gives those with minor injuries time to try and get some much-needed rest. That's the case for Altuve and Alvarez. Altuve exited a game last week after taking a pitch to the knee, returning in Sunday's game but still deciding to sit out the All-Star game to rest and be prepared for the second half.

Alvarez, meanwhile, ended up on the IL on July 10th with his nagging hand injury. While the injury sounds concerning, Dusty Baker remained hopeful that with the days off, Houston's star DH could be ready to go against the Yankees on Thursday. Houston has more players awaiting an eventual return, namely Michael Brantley and Lance McCullers Jr.

Brantley's timetable is still unclear; getting sidelined with a shoulder injury that, to this point, still has no clear designation or rehab plan but is not expected to cause significant time missed in the second half. In more positive news, McCullers Jr. will make his long-awaited return to live play with a rehab start in Corpus Christi on Friday. Although Houston's rotation is already surprisingly strong, adding another high-caliber arm to the mix can't hurt.

The trade deadline looms

Speaking of adding players to the mix, when play resumes on Thursday, the MLB will be less than two weeks away from the August 2nd trade deadline. It's unclear how aggressive Houston will be this time, with speculations ranging from packaging several big pieces and highest prospects to get Juan Soto to making very few moves. One surprising scenario is Houston going after a top starting pitcher, which is gaining steam in the rumor mill despite the Astros being very strong at the position.

James Click should undoubtedly listen to any calls coming his way because while the Astros' roster is strong, addressing minor flaws or improving areas in the smallest ways can pay massive dividends down the road. While I wouldn't advocate selling too much of the future, you never know what next season will bring, compared to the near-100% confidence that Houston will be in the expanded playoffs this year. The long-term window may be open, but this year's window is even wider.

Getting it done in the playoffs

It's no question that, despite your opinions about the 2017 team, the Astros have been dominant in the last five years, including in the playoffs, where they've made it to the ALCS each season and the World Series in three. Still, with their lone Commissioner's Trophy considered tainted by many, it still feels as though Houston needs to win another to acquire the respect of those outside of Houston.

It will arguably be even more challenging this year, with the playoffs expanding from 10 to 12 teams, allowing teams with weaker records to get hot at the right time and upset a strong team like the Astros. It makes the second half all that more important, as not only can they earn themselves a bye for the first round of the playoffs, but performing well down the stretch may keep the spark they need to transfer that to the postseason and win it all again.

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