Houston Astros: Wheels off, again

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The most unduly anticipated event in the MLB, outside of the midseason trade deadline (and often coinciding with the necessity for some trades) is the dreaded injury bug that usually rears its ugly head around the All-Star Break. Over half of the season has been put in, and the daily grind begins to show the wear and tear of our guys on the field. No team is immune, no matter what preparations are made, and a few key holes in a line up is enough to unravel any team.

For the Astros, the injury bug started hitting just after a phenomenal June record of 18-8, and an almost equally impressive July record of 12-7. Baseball was fun again and both the team and the fans enjoyed the games. Perhaps a little too much. To go off course a second, I want to take a look at the schedule in June and July, which led to an amazing catch-up run. From June 1st to July 24th, only 18 of the 45 games played were against playoff contenders, yet the win/loss percentage was steadfast .667 against both playoff contenders and non-playoff contenders.

Many of those games were divisional, and sometimes divisional opponents are tougher to face, given the number of times the respective clubs play throughout the season. For the Astros, the record for non-playoff contender divisional opponents was 15-4. For playoff contender divisional opponents, the record was 6-4, with an overall 21-28 record in the AL West. In essence, the Astros own the AL West except for 1 stupid team. Ironically, that 1 stupid team will keep the Astros out of 1st (and possibly the playoffs) because of whatever voodoo they have used hold the Astros down.

Outside of the division, the Astros have managed to dominate playoff teams 6-2, while losing against non-contenders 3-5. That’s an odd statistic, and it is hard to say whether it points to a definite pattern, given the small sampling size (16 games total), but within the record 30-15 comeback to relevance stand the Astros had, it does show that the Astros tend to play to the opponent outside of the division. The problem with that is, with teams you should be dominating, you’re giving them a chance for a win. In a streak that boasted a 30-15 win loss record, that seems almost inconsequential – except it wasn’t.

Because when the Astros hit the meat of their schedule against a husky group of playoff contenders, the injury bug hit and the wheels came off. The Astros went from being within a couple of games within 1st place in the AL West, to 3rd place in the division – all in a 2 week span. Then 10 grueling days later, the Astros found themselves 10.5 games out of 1st and 3.5 out of 2nd. Tragedy. This stretch of games against high caliber teams mirrored the awful April start the club had (7-16 and 7-17 records, respectively). Two reasons for this: injury and absolutely no plan b.

Injury is unavoidable in the sport. It it indiscriminatory. The 2 injuries that hurt the worst during this time were the hamstring and wrist soreness that knocked Marwin Gonzales out of the lineup several times during this stretch, and Luis Valbuena’s season-ending hamstring strain. Gonzalez started missing time July 24th, and Valbuena left the game July 26th. Subsequently, Gregerson, McCullers and Rasmus suffered injury or setbacks that yanked them from the lineup. And with all those injuries clustering around the meatiest stretch of the schedule, the Astros had zero back-up plan.

There were no big trades (although I’m not completely opposed to that), no rookies were quite ready to be pulled from the farming system, and no help from any veteran signings over the past few years, as far as offense is concerned. In reality, almost 100% of the run production in this stint were home grown players in the 1-4 slot in the lineup. You could pretty much guarantee, aside from the occasional walk, zero bases every second and third inning as it was, but when Valbuena was lost and Gonzalez started disappearing from the lineup, offense fell flat.

Eventually, with some hap-hazard call-ups, rookie Alex Bregman finally getting his footing, and the signing of Cuban superstar Yulieski Gourriel, the Astros offense has steadied and is back into producing runs and wins on a regular basis. So what better time than to hit a snag in the starting rotation pitching? With McCullers already on DL and Musgrove showing he is clearly not ready for prime time, Dallas Keuchel has been taken out of the rotation indefinitely, and there is no clear answer to who his replacement should be, or even if/when Keuchel is coming back into the rotation.

In the meantime, Hinch is again hap-hazardly juggling with call-ups and rookies to mend the starting rotation. Once again, a rookie pitcher will have his MLB debut this Thursday, in another tough stretch of playoff contenders before finishing off the season with less-challenging divisional opponents. It’s not looking great for the post season, but the Astros are not out of it yet. If rookie RHP David Paulino can make a splash in his debut, then the Astros can pull of a series win (or even sweep) against the Tribe. This would balance out the starting rotation and keep the bullpen stocked up.

If not, well…better luck next year.

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Houston Astros: Control your own destiny

Charted percentages for the probability of each team in the AL West to get postseason play, throughout the year

Charted percentages for the probability of each team in the AL West to get postseason play, throughout the year

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.