The Houston Astros started the season as one of the worst teams in baseball as they went 7-17 and were the laughing stock of baseball in April.
Since then, the Houston Astros have gone 35-20 to reach six games over .500 for the first time in 2016. Even more amazing is that the Astros had 18 wins in June only losing eight games, better than any stretch in 2015 for the club. They have accomplished something else that they haven’t done this season following yesterday’s 5-0 win over the White Sox.
The Astros have crawled out from the 2016 tombstone that wasn’t published, and they are officially back in the American League playoff picture with the Royals losing last night. The Astros are now sitting in the Wild Card 2 slot within percentage points of the first slot currently held by the Red Sox. For at least today, the Astros are in the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Astros would be the talk of baseball if it weren’t for the 14-game winning streak of the Cleveland Indians. The Astros are 9-1 in their last ten games, with their only loss coming from the Royals as they salvaged one game in that series. The Astros are 14-3 in their last 17 games, which is amazing. Where are they compared to the 2015 Astros through 80 games?
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In game #80 of 2015, the Astros had just beat the Kansas City Royals 6-1 to post a record of 46-34 at the time. They are three games behind the 2015 pace currently sitting at 43-37 in 2016. Before I move on, game #81 last season was a critical game that the Astros won, but a hit by pitch would change the Astros plans at the trade deadline. Not naming any names, but we all remember that pitch that almost ruined the Astros season.
The fact the Astros have a .538 winning percentage this soon in 2016 is amazing with how the season began. What has been the difference recently?
George Springer started hitting leadoff, which seemed to ignite the team. While Springer’s stats batting first or second are almost identical at this point, him leading off opens other spots for players to succeed.
Luis Valbuena and Carlos Gomez started hitting and hitting well. Gomez hit .286 with three homers and 13 RBI with a robust .814 OPS in June. Valbuena started heating up in May, hitting six homers, but he started hitting for more average in June. Valbuena hit .316 with three homers and 10 RBIs with a .940 OPS. Valbuena has moved up to the second slot in the batting order behind his hot streak. The Astros as a team increased their batting average from .235 ish in the first two months, all the way to .246 after hitting .268 in June.
The biggest change in the team has been the bullpen which seemed shaky to start off the season, but it has developed into one of the best bullpens at holding the opposing teams at bay. Will Harris has taken over as the closer, Luke Gregerson has adjusted to the setup guy, and Scott Feldman has rediscovered how to get people out coming out of the bullpen. Michael Feliz and Chris Devenski have become some of the more reliable multi-inning relievers in the game. Ken Giles has also reverted to his Phillies self.
Another factor has to be moving Jose Altuve to the third slot bumping Carlos Correa back to cleanup. Colby Rasmus was struggling as the cleanup hitter this year but has had some success since moving down the order. Correa, who got his 50th RBI on the season last night, has thrived as the cleanup guy while Altuve hits anywhere that A.J. Hinch bats him.
The starting pitching has been better, but last night Mike Fiers showed some fire after being pulled in the fifth inning of his last game despite leading 7-2 at the time. Fiers kept the White Sox scoreless in six innings last night despite allowing fours hits and walking two hitters. He added four strikeouts, but most importantly, his effort got the Astros officially back into the playoff picture.
The Astros continue to play some of the weaker teams in the American League for the next 18 games, including the White Sox, Mariners twice, Athletics twice, and the Angels. The Seatle Mariners have given the Astros the most trouble this season, but if the Astros play good baseball, they can beat anyone. One game at a time, but enjoy the Wild Card slot for as long as we hold it.
***Stats from Baseball-Reference***