The Astros are coming off a productive week that began with them one game out of first place in the American League West and ended with them leading by 2.5 games over Seattle and three over Texas.
The Astros went to Arlington and humiliated the Rangers in a three-game sweep. Then they returned home to win two of three against the Padres. That 5-1 record featured the Astros outscoring their opponents 60-28, batting .344, bashing 18 home runs and compiling a 1.074 OPS.
Although it’s too early to make any brash statements, the Astros may have gotten their mojo back at Minute Maid Park. They were 35-35 at home after getting pummeled by the Padres on Friday night, but after rebounding in the last two victories, they’re 37-35 going into the three-game series against Oakland.
The A’s (44-99) have the second-worst record in baseball. The Astros’ next opponent, Kansas City on the road, has the worst record (44-100). The Astros are 9-1 against the A’s this season. They’ll be playing the Royals for the first time and have another three-game series against them at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros (82-62) have a 20-win advantage for the first time this season. They lead the Mariners (79-64) and Rangers (78-64) in the race for the division title. If the playoffs started today, the Astros would get a first-round bye. The Mariners would play the Twins, and the Rays would play the Blue Jays in the wild-card round. The Rangers would be watching on television.
The Astros have 18 games remaining, including nine at home. They’re on a pace to eclipse 3 million fans for the first time since 2007. The biggest draw will be a three-game series against the Orioles (Sept. 18-20) that could be a preview of the ALCS. Baltimore (90-52) has the AL’s best record and should earn home-field advantage in the playoffs like the Astros had last season. That series will be sandwiched between the A’s the Royals.
The Astros close with road trips to Seattle and Arizona, which, under normal circumstances, would be a bad thing, but not this season. The Astros (45-27) have excelled on the road. They have the third-most road victories in baseball between the Orioles (48-26) and Braves (47-24).
Going into Monday night’s Oakland game, FanGraphs gives the Astros a 98.8 percent chance to make the playoffs and a 15.6 percent chance to win the World Series. Only Atlanta (30.7 percent) has a better chance to win the championship.
What the Astros have going for them more than any team other than the Braves is being in such good physical condition they’re exploding at the plate. They missed Yordan Alvarez, Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley for big parts of the season, and all have been raking as the Astros start to peak during the stretch drive and an opportunity to reach a fifth World Series in seven seasons.
Hitting hasn’t been an issue. Starting pitching has been.
It’s been bombs away in their last 10 victories over Detroit, Boston, Texas and San Diego, reaching double figures six times and averaging 11 runs a game.
The Astros have played 144 games going into Monday’s series open against the A’s. Alex Bregman has played in 143 and Kyle Tucker 140. Bregman, the team’s Iron Man who has 22 home runs and 93 RBIs, is slashing .272/.367/.450 with an .817 OPS. Tucker, Iron Man II, has 26 homers and 103 RBIs to go with a slash line of .290/.375/.513 and an OPS of .888.
Imagine if Alvarez could stay healthy and play as many games as Bregman and Tucker. He’s played in 96 of 144 games and has 26 home runs and 85 RBIs. If he hadn’t missed 48 games, he might be on a pace for 50 homers and 130 RBIs. He goes into the Oakland series slashing .301/.415/.588 with a 1.004 OPS.
Jose Altuve has hit 16 homers in 72 games. That would have given him 32 if he’d been able to play every game. Jeremy Pena has elevated his batting average to .261. Brantley, who’s played in eight games, is hitting .346.
Chas McCormick (98 games) has 20 homers, 63 RBIs and is slashing .288/.368/.529 with a .889 OPS. Yainer Diaz (94 games) has 21 home runs, 55 RBIs and is slashing .283/.307./535 with an .843 OPS.
The point is the Astros’ hitters are mashing.
Now, about those starting pitchers. Framber Valdez (11-9 record, 3.30 ERA) starts against the A’s on Monday. Justin Verlander (11-7, 3.23, including 5-2, 3.43 since the trade) starts Tuesday. Hunter Brown (10-11, 4.78) has really been struggling and might be better off not making his regular start on Wednesday. He’s looked worn out during his last two starts.
Of the remaining starters, J.P France (11-5, 3.61) has been the most reliable. Cristian Javier (9-3, 4.78) continues to be a disappointment. Jose Urquidy (2-3, 5.98) has been used in long relief and has a 6.75 ERA in four appearances out of the bullpen.
The relief pitching seems to have overcome some inconsistency at just the right time. The Astros have a deep, talented and experienced bullpen. Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu and closer Ryan Pressly have been the most reliable. Phil Maton is close behind. Rafael Montero has overcome his terrible start and has improved considerably. They need for Kendall Graveman to pitch the way he’s capable.
It’s that time of the year when the Astros’ playoff experience serves them well. One thing fans know: Unlike their AL West neighbors to the north, their collars won’t get too tight during the pressure of a pennant race.
John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on SportsRadio 610 and Monday, Thursday and Sunday on Texans Radio, also on SportsRadio 610. He writes five columns a week and does three Houtopia Football Podcasts for SportsRadio610.com.