Beginning tonight, the Houston Astros are playing a critical three-game series against Arizona, a team officially eliminated from contention. Their primary competitors for a playoff berth, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Texas, are all facing playoff teams and contenders. In the case of Texas and Los Angeles, they’re playing each other.
This is not nearly the advantage it seems. Here are four significant reasons for concern this weekend:
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1. Arizona is a good team.
Are they a playoff team? Absolutely not. But their +25 run differential is better than that of the Rangers (+13), the Twins (+7) or the Angels (-9).
Arizona’s primary weapons: world-class hitter Paul Goldschmidt (166 OPS+, 8.4 WAR) and emerging superstar CF A.J. Pollock (130 OPS+, 7.3 WAR). Those two players have had better seasons than any Astros hitter — by far. They are also both right-handed, and even better hitters at home. Goldschmidt’s OPS is a full 100 points higher (1.043) at Chase Field.
2. Texas may stop trying — soon.
What happens if the Rangers beat the Angels tonight? The AL West race is over. And if that happens, Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Delino DeShields (who are all banged up) will almost certainly sit out on Saturday and Sunday. Cole Hamels won’t pitch Sunday. The Angels will have a clear path to a split, putting pressure on the Astros to win 2 out of 3 in order to avoid a tie.
3. Ditto Kansas City.
The Royals are now locked in the #2 seed, and a near-certain first round matchup with the Rangers. What motivation do they have to play hard in Minnesota? They will make half-hearted gestures towards respecting the playoff race, but it’s hard to envision them winning more than one game against a desperate Twins team. Houston fans should be paying careful attention to the Twins, who sit a single game back and would host a one-game tiebreak with the Astros on Monday.
4. #RoadAstros (And #RoadKeuchel)
I will not belabor the point on the Astros’ struggles on the road. They have the worst road record in the American League (and the Athletics have 93 losses!). Enough said.
But Dallas Keuchel, who is 4-8 with a pedestrian 3.82 ERA and .688 opponents’ OPS away from Minute Maid Park, is far from a lock to cruise to a win tonight. He also has been somewhat more vulnerable to right-handed hitters (.595 OPS against, compared to an unhittable .466 vs. LHB), and the Diamondbacks lineup, anchored by Pollack and Goldschmidt and peppered with other dangerous right-handed bats like Yasmany Tomas and Welington Castillo, could pose quite a challenge.
I am not interested in additional critiques — namely those that cite the heavy air of the pennant race. The entire concept of choking is based on the idea that a player can somehow advance to being among the best in the world at what he does, after years of being prodded and pressured by scouts, coaches, executives, fans and opponents, and somehow be incapable of handling stress effectively. That’s not the issue.
A talented opponent in their own stadium? Problem. Rivals who may be facing disinterested opponents? Problem.
If the Astros are to make the playoffs, the hardest work to earn it is still ahead of them.
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