How Astros pitching infusion has sparked fascinating chain reaction

How Astros pitching infusion has sparked fascinating chain reaction
A lot can happen in a matter of days. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

From the moment the Astros announced that Justin Verlander was returning to the scene of his greatest glory …

Framber Valdez pitched a near-perfect no-hitter, the Astros completed a sweep of the pesky Guardians, and the Astros now are betting favorites to plunder the American League and everything else that stands in their way.

I’m not saying the Verlander trade is partly responsible for the Astros resurgent rise to dominance … I’m saying it’s 100 percent responsible.

In a matter of 48 hours, the Astros jumped to 11-2 odds to win the World Series, passing the temporarily first-place Rangers who are now 17-2 to win the title.

B.V.T. (before Verlander trade) Astros fans wondered if the team had enough pitching to go deep in the playoffs. Well, if memory serves, Valdez won two games and Verlander one in last year’s World Series. Yeah, the Astros have enough pitching.

These are the dog days of summer baseball, when players typically drag their butts through July and August of an interminable season. Not in Houston.

You think the Astros aren’t sky high heading into New York for a four-game series against the Yankees? Did you catch Alex Bregman’s interview after hearing that Verlander was coming back? I’ve seen less excited Mega Millions winners.

While Mets and Yankees fans are wringing their hands and signing up for grief counseling, Astros fans are putting in for vacation time in October.

Think how fans in New York feel (not that we care). After winning 101 games last year, the Mets signed Verlander and welcomed the 2023 season with high hopes and the highest payroll in baseball history. Mets fans were stoked. The team sold out their allotment of season tickets, and charged record prices for individual game tickets. World Series or bust!

Bust! The Mets are now the GOAT of disappointing teams. They just unloaded most of the high-priced talent that spurred ticket sales. A departing pitcher squealed he was told the team is officially in rebuild mode and doesn’t expect to win until 2026. Fans are disgusted with the team and once-precious tickets are going for peanuts.

You want to go to Citi Field for the Pirates-Mets game on Aug. 16? The giveaway that night is Max Scherzer Sunglasses. You can get reserved seat tickets for $4 and there’s plenty available on the secondary market. Oh, the irony.

Because it’s the fans’ job to complain about something no matter how good times are, some Astros fans’ panties are in a bunch because the manager continues to play a puny-hitting catcher over a promising rookie. Why is he still playing a left fielder who seemingly hasn’t had a hit since Verlander’s first time around in Houston. And did we make a mistake trading two prospects for a 40-year-old pitcher?

Answer: the Astros absolutely did the right thing sending two coveted minor leaguers to the Mets for Verlander. Ever hear the expression, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? In baseball, prospects are two in the bush.

Verlander, after a slow start, is one of the hottest pitchers in the league. Plus his presence in the clubhouse is immeasurable. He’s here to win games and drive the Astros to another World Series, like he’s done twice before. He’s here to mentor rookie Hunter Brown. He’s here to fill the remaining empty seats at Minute Maid Park. He’s here to light up Houston.

On top of all that, the Met’s are paying a big chunk of Verlander’s salary. The 2022 Cy Young winner is a bargain.

Most important, the Astros clubhouse is a happy place. Unlike some other cities, Astros players and fans don’t wonder if the owner really truly, deep down, wants to win. Owner Jim Crane craves winning, and he’s putting the Mets’ money where his mouth is.

As for the prospects headed to New York, what’s that mean for the Astros’ future? We’ll worry about tomorrow … tomorrow. Right now the Astros are focused on winning the 2023 World Series and cementing their legacy as a modern baseball dynasty.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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