(SportsRadio 610) - This is the last week of the Major League Baseball season, and the Astros are stumbling around the American League West ring like some punch-drunk fighter, flailing away as they stagger toward a 10-count and the ultimate knockout blow that puts them out of their misery.
With six games remaining – thankfully on the road – against Seattle and Arizona, there’s no resemblance to the last six seasons that were so exciting, magical and rewarding for the Astros’ devoted fan base that celebrated six appearances in the ALCS, four in the World Series and two championships.
Those Astros were the epitome of clutch – hitting, pitching and fielding – and their success was unmatched over the six-year period that produced a dynasty. You want the epitome of clutch going into the last week of this season? Unfortunately, you’ll have to head up I-45 North and go west to Arlington.
While Dusty Baker’s Astros were continuing to embarrass themselves by getting swept by the 102-loss Royals at Minute Maid Park, where they finished an inexplicable 39-42, the Rangers were sweeping the Mariners in Arlington and taking over first place in the AL West.
There’s a reason Rangers’ manager Bruce Bochy won three World Series with the Giants. When the Rangers were throwing away their 3.5-game division lead and threatening to miss the playoffs, Bochy kept them from a total collapse. They withstood an eight-game losing streak and a 2-7 stretch that left them 76-64 to recover with six-game winning streak.
Over the weekend, the third-place Mariners went to Arlington with an opportunity to secure first place, but the Rangers swept them in impressive fashion, including six home runs on Sunday. Then Texas left for three games at the Angels and the last four at the Mariners leading the Astros by 2.5 games and Seattle by three.
When the Rangers were pounding the Mariners with their home run barrage and improved pitching, the Astros were losing three games to the Royals. And that’s on top of losing consecutive series to Oakland (2-of-3) and Kansas City (2-of-3). Remember when we thought playing a nine-game stretch against the two-worst teams in baseball was a good thing for the Astros? It turned out to be a 2-7 disaster, despite sellout crowds that put them beyond 3 million in attendance.
I’ve had angry fans claim the players have quit on Baker, that they don’t want to win and don’t know how to win. Hogwash! They haven’t quit on Baker. They know how to win better than any team in baseball because they did it more than any team over the last six seasons.
But 2022 doesn’t have squat to do with how they’re playing today when they had a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back World Series since the 2000 Yankees completed their threepeat.
The problem is the players don’t want to win bad enough or they wouldn’t be so bad. Oh, they think they do, of course, but if they did want to win bad instead of just being bad, they wouldn’t be crumbling against the 108-loss A’s and the 102-loss Royals, right?
The Astros have been terrible at the most crucial time of the season, and there’s nothing in their recent results that gives us any confidence they’re going to flip the switch against the Mariners and Diamondbacks and transform from Clark Kent to Superman.
Could they recover over the last week of the season? Of course. We know they’ve got the experienced hitting and pitching it would take, but the issue is very few of them are hitting and pitching the way they’re capable when the team needs them the most.
The AL West is for the Rangers (87-68) to take entering their three-game series against the Angels. The Astros (85-71) need a fantastic finish. The Mariners (84-71) have everything at their fingertips because they host the Astros and Rangers for seven games.
Any team can win the division. Only one is likely to earn a wild card berth because the Rays (95-62) and Jays (87-69) seem destined for the first two spots. That leaves one for the AL West team that doesn’t win the division.
When the Astros won their last series – two of three over the Padres – they stood 82-62 and led the division by 2.5 games. Then their freefall began. They finished 1-5 on their last homestand that included a series loss to the Orioles, the best team in the American League.
If the Astros crawl to the finish line and end up on the outside looking in at the playoffs, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves. They can’t whine about injuries or look skyward and claim it’s just fate or shrug their shoulders and say all good things come to an end.
No, they’ve reached this predicament because their starting pitching has crumbled, hitters have left too many men on base and they’ve made too many fielding and base-running mistakes – the kind they used to take advantage of when they were dominating the American League.
At this late stage of the season, the Astros are desperate. So are the Mariners. When they throw out the first pitch in Monday’s first game, we’ll see if the Astros have the pride and energy to get off the mat and stage a Rocky-like revival or just stay down for the count and get ready for their vacations.
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.