After spending 139 days in first place, the Houston Astros have spent the past two days in second place. They have lost three straight games to the red-hot Texas Rangers and have fallen 1.5 games back in the division. The Astros do still hold a game-and-a-half lead over the Minnesota Twins for the second Wild Card spot. Even though their momentum is headed in the wrong direction, the Astros still have an 85.2-percent chance to make the playoffs according to the oddsmakers.
For a team that lost 416 games over the past four years, that’s a pretty good position to be in.
The Astros shocked the world by getting off to a 15-7 start in the month of April. That hot month was built largely on the backs of some of the most mediocre teams in the league. The Astros went a combined 13-4 against the Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, and San Diego Padres. Their run differential in the month was 28. Since closing April in the midst of a ten-game winning streak, however, the Astros are just 52-52. More importantly (and troublesome), they are 4-10 in September and have been outscored by 10 runs.
If this sounds like a familiar tale, that’s because it is. The 2014 Milwaukee Brewers held first place in the National League Central for a whopping 133 days, and found themselves on top of the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates as late as August 31. A miserable swoon dropped the overachieving bunch of Brewers all the way down to 82-80 on the season’s final day.
Even as they scuffle along in September, it’s hard to see the Astros falling off a cliff that badly. The Astros have not had a sub-.500 record in any other month of the season. While they have not come close to replicating their hot April, they have played solid baseball. Over the course of a six month season, all it takes to get into the playoffs in a weak year for the American League is a couple of games over .500 a month. Six times two is 12, and an 87-75 record certainly looks like it’s enough to reach the playoffs in the watered down AL.
Even in their recent skid, the Astros have played good baseball. They have lost four one-run games in September. The first two games of the Rangers series were back-and-forth affairs before Wednesday night’s dud. That being said, the Astros are not a team without their flaws. They have the second-lowest batting average in the league at .244 and have struck out a whopping 1,259 times on the season. They do rely heavily on the home run to score runs. Beyond Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, there are few players in the lineup who can be counted as more than a boom-or-bust proposition. Every player the Astros have used regularly this season save Altuve has either already breached the 100 strikeout mark or would project to over a full 162 game season. When everyone slumps at once, look out. That approach works in the regular season, but has not been proven to be effective in the postseason when every pitch and at-bat is magnified.
The real problem for the Astros could be their inability to win anywhere but Minute Maid Park. Houston is 16 games below .500 on the road. The team is constructed to hit home runs in a small park. At home, the Astros have a .769 OPS. On the road, their OPS drops precipitously to .703. The Astros hit 1.5 home runs per game in their home park, but just 1.2 per game on the road. Combine the over-reliance on the long ball with a youthful team, and the Astros have a recipe for disaster every time they take the road.
Ultimately, the Astros hopes come down to the pitching staff. With a 3.41 staff ERA, the Astros surprisingly lead the league despite playing in a bandbox. Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Scott Kazmir, and Lance McCullers can match up with any pitching staff and lineup in the league, and the bullpen has been just as solid. The Astros will not find themselves out of too many games should they hold on to make the playoffs. Against the underwhelming pitching staffs of the Toronto Blue Jays, Kansas City Royals, and New York Yankees, the Astros should be able to score more than enough runs to have a shot at the World Series.
The Astros should still make the playoffs. The remainder of their schedule is favorable. Getting out of the Rangers series with at least one win is a must at this point. The Astros need some semblance of positive momentum going forward. With a power pitching staff, the Astros have the ability to make some noise in the postseason, despite the flaws in their lineup. Everyone has waited around for an epic collapse from the Astros all season, but this isn’t it. The Houston Astros are a good baseball team and a playoff baseball team.