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The Astros look like the Astros again, and we can all relax

Justin Verlander
Justin Verlander took a no-hitter into the 8th inning Tuesday night. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

Justin Verlander

Water is truly amazing. It covers about 70% of the Earth's surface, makes up about 60% of our bodies, and is necessary for most lifeforms. We use it for food, drink, to clean, and all sorts of other things. Water can also be destructive. Floods and leaks cause damage to homes, as we all know too well. Dirty water leads to bacteria and disease. Sitting water and moist conditions leads to mold and mildew. So, for as beneficial as water can be, it can also be very harmful.

There's a saying about water: it will always find its level and/or the path of least resistance. So will the Astros. This team has taken several hits over the last few years. Players have come and gone, star players at that. The general manager and manager that helped bring a World Series to the city and helped reshape this organization were unceremoniously fired following the team being made the face of an age-old cheating scandal. Not to mention the owners locked the players out for the majority of this past offseason which cut spring training short tremendously.

After starting the season 7-8, the team has gone 12-3 in their last 15 games and is within one game of the division lead as of this writing. Fans and some media hit the panic button a tad too early. They thought the loss of talent, leadership changes, and setbacks were too much for this team to overcome. They thought the ride was finally coming to an end. The string of playoff appearances had come to a jolting halt. What they failed to realize was, the season had just started. Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. At 30 games played, we're barely at the 20% mark of the season.

Two players come to mind when looking at the way this season has started: Justin Verlander and Jeremy Peña. Verlander is the pitching staff's unquestioned ace. The future Hall of Famer is coming off Tommy John surgery after missing all but one start the last two seasons. Who would've thought he was capable of having a 1.55 ERA through his first six starts? Verlander took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Twins on Tuesday night. He's been unbelievable.

Peña had the unenviable task of replacing Carlos Correa. His defense, leadership, and "It Factor" aren't enough to eclipse what Correa brought to the table, but this kid is a baller! He's come up with big hits and timely plays to make you forget he's a rookie. I'm looking forward to watching him grow.

Water is also necessary for life and growth. When a seed is planted, it needs sunlight and water to grow. When it's damaged, water helps it repair itself. The Astros' tree has taken some hits over the years after it became fully grown. It's still producing fruit, still goes through the seasons, and still standing strong. Sometimes we see trees take hits during storms, but they survive. The Astros aren't only surviving, they're thriving. Verlander and Peña are only two of the buckets of water that are fueling the tree. This season has just started. The water is finding its level. The tree is repairing itself. The Angels better watch their ass because the Astros are hot on their trails! This run has put the league on notice that the Astros aren't going anywhere.

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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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