Here are the advantages, challenges with this defining stretch for Houston Astros

The injury bug has been an issue, but the schedule should help the Astros. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

The Astros are on a roll. As of this writing, they're 11.5 games up on the Mariners for the AL West division lead. They're also four games up on the Yankees for the best record in the AL. It's clear the road to the World Series will go through Houston. While they're eight games behind the Dodgers for the best overall record, they have a psychological advantage over the blue team from LA. What's puzzling to me is the inexplicable losses the Astros have had against bad teams.

The Orioles, Red Sox, Rangers, and A's have all beaten the Astros recently. The Orioles are the only team on that list above .500 on the season. The others are closer to the number one overall pick in the draft. Perhaps the worst of it was getting swept by the A's at the end of July in a three game series. Sure they were on the road playing a division rival, but losing three straight to a team that's 34 games behind them in the standings is a tough pill to swallow.

Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. Those of you who live and die with every loss are crazy. The ones who felt the season was over when the team wasn't in the division lead early on and thought when different players were in a slump it would last forever are even worse. Water will always find its level, and this team has found theirs. The only concern is them tripping over their own feet from time to time.

My only explanation is that they get bored and/or lose focus. Playing a team you know you've beaten up plenty of times before or seeing a starter you know your lineup should thrash seems to give this team a false sense of security. They'll slip up here and there, then get right back on track. For example: just before they dropped those three games to the A's, they won five straight against the Yankees and Mariners.

Their next 20 game stretch features only three games against a team above .500, the Rays. This will be a defining stretch as they have the chance to put more distance between themselves and the rest of the AL. It'll also be a challenge for those dog days of summer people always talk about in baseball. If they can find the proper motivation and keep up their expected level of play, there's no reason why this team can't find a way to win at least 15 of the next 20 games, or more.

The postseason is near. However, the fear that this team will be booted from the party early on is unnecessary. They play up to their competition. The pitching, primarily the starters, are the backbone of this team. Any time Framber Valdez sets a record for most consecutive quality starts by a lefty with 22, and he still isn't the Cy Young frontrunner because his teammate, Justin Verlander, is having the greatest comeback season after Tommy John surgery, that's saying something. Throw in the guys who can't crack the top 3 in the rotation, and you have a very spicy staff.

Once the playoffs start, their experience will kick in. Nerves will be tamed. Concentration will be at a premium and these guys will show up to play. The rest of the league better be on notice.

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