As I write this, I have the Rangers/Angels game humming in the background, because this game is as important to the Astros as the next 3 games in the final series of the season. I am gingerly cheering for a Rangers win, even though they are the newfound rivals. When it comes down to it, Texas first. Sorry, California.
After last night’s surprising and ugly win, I found myself eating my own words. When the Astros lost their wildcard spot the day prior, I didn’t believe they’d gain it back. The audacity of believing they could pull off back-to-back series wins on the road in the final stretch was just more than I could fathom. Add to that the red-hot streak that the Angels have been on, and a comeback did not appear plausible.
But then, September baseball happened.
September baseball is when all our knowledge of the game and the teams is thrown out the window. Pecking order for the postseason begins to take shape, and some teams drop out of the race. For the teams in playoff contention, September baseball is when they show they’re clutch, or slowly fade off the radar. There really is no in-between. This is when non-contention teams also relax, and play the game for the sake of the game. When this happens, upsets happen.
The Angels lost their final game against the Athletics, and the Astros got a dirty, sloppy win against the Mariners. That respective loss and win, an upset against the Angels and a comeback from a frustrating game for the Astros, flip-flopped the standings for the wildcard position. The Angels, who started 1/2 a game ahead and in the wildcard spot for the first time, dropped down past the Astros, who came back into their wildcard spot just lost the day before. Now the race is on.
We’ve all been mathed into oblivion with stats, probabilities, and predictions this past week. The notions of 2-, 3-, and 4-way tiebreaker games have been toyed with. So have all our emotions. Legitimately speaking, either the Astros, or Rangers could sweep their last series, and the Astros would be strolling into the playoffs. It doesn’t matter who, either. An even split would send the Astros to the playoffs. Math, math, and more math would either send them or knock them out.
We’re not going to do math right now, because math doesn’t matter anymore. The Astros just need to win out. In order to get in, the Astros need to put on their blinders, stop looking around, and just look ahead at the next game. Win that one, and then worry about the next one. Win that one, and then worry about the last one. And when they’ve won out their last series with a sweep, they can look around and see where all the dust has settled.
This will be the challenge for the team. This is new territory for the Astros – new enough, at least. This team was patchworked together to eventually become what they’ve grown into this season. They’re getting their experience as a contender, and getting a taste of what it means to be playing meaningful baseball, now in October. That means staying loose, and enjoying the game. That means putting it all out on the field, and leaving it there until the last ball’s thrown.
The last game against the Mariners, the Astros were not playing in that game. They were playing a couple of games ahead, and watching the other teams win or lose. It’s a mistake that any young team can get caught up in. It’s a mistake the Astros have fallen into in September, a few times. A good inning doesn’t put you off guard. A good inning prepares you for the next one. A team shouldn’t win with 4 errors and one single hit more than the opposing team.
A playoff team shouldn’t get away with airmailing a throw into the stands. There shouldn’t be 2-3 player collisions within the stretch of a week. Easy drops shouldn’t be happening in the outfield. An out shouldn’t occur because you took your foot off the base. Nobody needs to be taking golf swings at the plate. The games that have passed are over now, and the wins and losses have been tallied.
It’s time to move forward, and finish this season like a team in playoff contention should. No more rookie mistakes (even for rookies). No more phoning it in. Have fun with the game, but keep your head in. The Astros have the ability to play this game, and the choice is theirs to make. Either play like a playoff contender, or go home. In these next 3 games, we’ll see if they’re ready to.