Despite setbacks, here's why things are lining up just right for Astros

Despite setbacks, here's why things are lining up just right for Astros
The AL Central could be the Astros' best friend. Composite Getty Image.
How latest “curveball” in contract negotiations could impact Houston Astros

The All-Star break is typically the time when Houston’s baseball analysts and commentators file their mid-term report cards on the Astros season.

You’ve seen them: Mauricio Dubon gets an A+ for filling in at second base during Jose Altuve’s excused absence for injury. Dubon has been a steady and clutch hitter and, truth be told, an improvement over Altuve at second base.

Jose Abreu earns a D at first base. While he’s improved over his disastrous first 60 games when he was an undeniable flop, he’s retreated to his below-average, certainly below-expectation ways (one hit in the 4-game series against Seattle).

In reality, the whole Astros roster gets an Incomplete for the 2023 season. First, the season has more than two months to go, the dog days of summer are upon us, when the season seems to drag on and games seem to matter less. But that’s really not the case. A “businessman’s special” (remember when they used to call Thursday day games by that gender-specific name?) counts just as much in the standings as a Sunday night “Game of the Week” on national TV.

Let’s not dwell on Astros first-half injuries and disappointments – the team is in second place and looking up at the Texas Rangers, no Astros in the All-Star starting lineup, none in the Home Run Derby, most of the 1-9 starters having a letdown season and the pitching rotation a patchwork of Space Cowboy call-ups.

A path to a deep post-season run

Despite all that misery, let’s be optimistic. The Astros are sitting just two games out of first place. The schedule will give the Astros all the time and games they need to win the division. The Astros have six more games against the Rangers and, perhaps more important, seven left with the Oakland A’s. Because of the mediocrity of the AL Central, where a .500 record might take the division, whoever wins the AL West is all but assured of a first-round bye in the post-season.

I am concerned about the arrogant inevitability I hear from fans that the Astros will win the American League West just by snapping their fingers. That’s the product of the Astros’ crazy success since 2017. As Charles Schwab will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Put it this way, the Rangers are in first place, two games up. Right now, it’s better to be them than to be us. There’s work to be done. The Astros can always do some extra credit to get their grade up.

First, what to do when Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve return? Alvarez is one of the most fearsome sluggers in the game and Altuve is the heart and soul of this team. They have to play. Where does that leave Dubon and Yanier Diaz? They have to play, too. Who’s the everyday – or most days – center fielder? Will the Astros land a bat or starting arm at the trade deadline?

Will Dusty Baker bite the bullet and put Diaz at catcher and push Maldonado to backup? Will Dubon become the regular left fielder? Will Alvarez get time at first base? Will Alex Bregman turn it around? And will the Astros finally stop saying “when Michael Brantley returns?”

More questions than The Weakest Link, and the Astros could be in jeopardy if Baker doesn’t have the correct answers. Astros fans should strap themselves in tight, it could be a bumpy ride.

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Yordan Alvarez is hitting fifth for the American League. Composite Getty Image.

Baltimore's Corbin Burnes will start for the American League in Tuesday night's All-Star Game against Pittsburgh rookie Paul Skenes.

A 29-year-old right-hander, Burnes is 9-4 with a 2.93 ERA in his first season with the Orioles, who acquired him from Milwaukee just before spring training. The 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner, Burnes is an All-Star for the fourth straight season. He will become the fifth Orioles pitcher to start an All-Star Game, the first since Steve Stone in 1980.

Skenes, who made his major league debut on May 11, is 6-0 with a 1.90 ERA in 11 starts, striking out 89 and walking 13 in 66 1/3 innings. The 11 starts for the 21-year-old right-hander will be the fewest for an All-Star and he will become the fifth rookie starter after Dave Stenhouse (1962), Mark Fidrych (1976), Fernando Valenzuela (1981) and Hideo Nomo (1995).

NL manager Torey Lovullo announced last week he was starting Skenes.

AL manager Bruce Bochy of World Series champion Texas said Monday he has Steven Kwan of Cleveland hitting leadoff and playing left field, followed by Baltimore shortstop Gunnar Henderson, New York Yankees right fielder Juan Soto and center fielder Aaron Judge, Houston designed hitter Yordan Alvarez, Guardians shortstop José Ramírez, Toronto first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Orioles catcher Adley Rutschman and Rangers second baseman Marcus Semien.

Ketel Marte bats first and plays second base for the NL, followed by Los Angeles Dodgers designated hitter Shohei Ohtani, Philadelphia shortstop Trea Turner, Phillies first baseman Bryce Harper, Milwaukee catcher William Contreras, Brewers right fielder Christian Yelich, Phillies third baseman Alex Bohm, Dodgers center fielder Teoscar Hernández and San Diego left fielder Jurickson Profar.

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