Here are the underlying factors laying groundwork for Astros stretch run

Astros Jeremy Pena, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker
The Astros' offense has come alive at just the right time. Composite Getty Image.
How these 4 Astros season-defining factors are setting the stage for major late-season drama

We’ll see whether the American League West race remains a three team derby down to the final days of the regular season, but as of now, this is fantastic! None of the other major sports can rival the day-to-day pulse of a good baseball playoff race. With the Astros, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers all having Thursday off, into the first weekend of September we go with the Mariners and Astros in a virtual tie for first with the Rangers one game back. The Rangers are home vs. the AL Central leading Minnesota Twins this weekend, the Mariners crossed the country to play the New York Mets.

There has never been a three-way tie for a division title. Should that unlikely history be made, first place goes to the team with the best combined record versus the other two. As things stand all three would get in the playoffs, with the Toronto Blue Jays three and a half games back of the Astros and M’s, two and a half behind the Rangers. If the Jays have a big run in them, they need it to kick in. Their next nine games are against the three worst teams in Major League Baseball: three at Colorado, three at Oakland, three home against Kansas City. The AL East runner-up between Baltimore and Tampa Bay is all but officially a Wild Card lock.

Off burying the Boston Red Sox’ season at Fenway Park with a three game sweep, now the Astros hope to administer more pain to the already dead New York Yankees. Though Thursday’s win grew a bit hairier than desired, the Astros would be hard-pressed to feel better heading into the weekend. 52 runs scored during their active five game winning streak. Michael Brantley with a two hit game Thursday after knocking off some rust with an 0-4 Wednesday in his first big league game in 14 months.

After four months of largely mediocre performance, Alex Bregman is piping hot with a .397 batting average and 12 extra base hits over his last 14 games. After he was flat out horrible in June and July, Jeremy Peña finished an August in which he hit .333 with an .881 OPS. Perhaps more significant than all the preceding (other than the wins of course), Framber Valdez posted a solid start in finishing off the BoSox. None of that guarantees a smashing 'Stros September, but anyone rooting Astros has to like their chances.

Following two outings over which he has thrown 11 shutout innings with 16 strikeouts, Justin Verlander starts the opener against the Yankees and their free agent disaster pitcher signing Carlos Rodon. Sidelined by injury for the bulk of the first season of his six year 162 million dollar contract, in eight starts Rodon is 1-4 with a 5.97 earned run average. When they faced Rodon August 6 the Astros knocked him out in the third inning. The Yanks only good starting pitcher is Cy Young Award favorite Gerrit Cole. The Astros won’t face Cole this weekend. Verlander goes on four days rest for a second straight start. He’ll make it three with Verlander clearly slotted to pitch the series finale against the Rangers this coming Wednesday. Oh yeah. The scheduled Rangers’ starting pitcher Wednesday? Max Scherzer. Perfect! Well, not for Mets fans.

On the subject of Arlington, barring something calamitous happening against the Yankees, the Astros go there as healthy as they can be the rest of this season. The Rangers are down injured rookie All-Star third baseman Josh Jung, and ace starter Nathan Eovaldi. J.P. France and Framber should be the Astros’ starting pitchers Monday and Tuesday, on current rotation in that order. If starting the veteran Valdez in game one is preferable, he’d have four days rest. The three game set starting Labor Day is the Astros’ biggest regular season series since 2015. None of the five Astros’ division titles in this Platinum Era faced the September challenge of 2023.

With all the Astros have accomplished since then and what they’re playing for now, it’s not as if payback for 2015 is on their radar whatsoever, but it was to Arlington the Astros went in mid-September eight seasons ago leading the AL West by a game and a half, only to have the Rangers sweep them four straight. The Astros didn’t see first place again, as the Rangers went on to win the division.

The Astros did get their first postseason taste of this run via the Wild Card, eliminating the Yankees before coming closer to ousting Kansas City than anyone else would along the Royals’ route to the World Series championship. The Rangers meanwhile authored one of MLB’s most notorious postseason gag jobs by blowing a two wins to none lead over Toronto in their best-of-five Division Series, capped in the decisive fifth game by committing errors on three consecutive plays in the bottom of the seventh inning ahead of Jose Bautista’s epic tiebreaking three run home run and bat flip.

Something to monitor

It’s very poor sportsmanship to hope for bad injury news for a fellow contender (and risks bad karma if you're into that). Human nature though, in an often dog eat dog world… Seattle stud center fielder Julio Rodriguez, the obvious American League Player of the Month for August, has missed the last two games with a pinched nerve in his left foot. Hopefully he’s back this weekend.

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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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