The last week of Houston Astros baseball was exciting to say the least. After a stirring sweep of the Los Angeles Angels and a weekend series win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Astros entered their series in Arlington on Monday with a four-game lead in the AL West.
Accordingly, the Sports Illustrated staff ranked the Astros 2nd overall in its weekly power rankings article on Monday, just behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who I will not make another bad hacking joke about here.
In the article, SI classifies the Astros as the “Big Riser” among all 30 MLB teams. With the additions of Carlos Gomez and Scott Kazmir “could prove to be decisive in the Astros’ quest for a playoff spot.” The article also cites Baseball Prospectus, which has given the team a whopping 93.2 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Tuesday evening.
Wow. Take this all in. Does it feel real yet?
Needless to say, the national media has hopped on the Houston hype train that many Astros fans have ridden since April. Barring utter disaster, the Houston Astros are primed for a playoff run, and nobody can tell you that’s crazy talk anymore.
As a cardholding member of the hype train club, I’m not here to tell you I’ve lost faith in the team’s capacity to win a division title, or even snag one of the wild card spots. That said, I remain slightly skeptical for a reason you probably don’t want to keep hearing about: the pitching staff.
While I commend Jeff Luhnow for bolstering an area of weakness in a big way, outside of an absolutely nasty “Brothers K” tag team at the top, the third and fourth guys in a potential four-man playoff rotation are still questionable.
Collin McHugh has shown flashes of his breakout 2014 this season, but he has been inconsistent at times. The thought of running him out there in a Game three situation makes me a little nervous despite his great start on Sunday. The jury is obviously still out on Mike Fiers despite his lackluster “spot”-long relief appearance on Monday night. However, he is tied for 13th in MLB in walks this season with 46, and like McHugh, he has been slightly homer-prone this season. So concern about him is justified, too, even though the Astros could theoretically hold onto him until 2020.
And then there’s the back-end of the bullpen. While Luke Gregerson has performed admirably this season, he’s a set-up guy wearing a closer mask, not your prototypical fireballer. The Astros have plenty of solid pitchers to set him up. However, one can’t help but wonder if failing to reel in Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman might come back to bite Luhnow at some point in a meaningful game.
Astros Must Play Well Down the Stretch
There is no perfect team in Major League Baseball, and there probably never will be. Everybody has flaws. Not even the Cardinals, who have probably used some cheat codes this season on their way to a .632 winning percentage, are 100 percent airtight. The Houston Astros are a very good baseball team and have enough offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run. So they’ve got that going for them. And if the back-end of the rotation comes alive and Gregerson can continue to hold things down, who knows? October baseball is often the definition of a crapshoot.
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Yes, SI was right to call the Astros a “big riser,” but don’t let a 5-1 week make you complacent. It’s not going to be easy for this team to put the rest of the division to bed. There is a lot of baseball left to be played, and weaknesses to be exploited.
But as the tension mounts with each game, remember how much better this is than August’s and September’s of the recent past. This is the time you’ve been waiting for. It’s stressful, but it’s also a whole lot of fun. Loyal Astros fans have earned this anxious brand of fun, so I implore you to:
a) Get used to feeling like this around this time of year and
b) Enjoy it, no matter the result.