Astros: Division on the line this weekend versus Oakland
Even though it’s only the end of August, the Houston Astros upcoming home series versus the Oakland A’s could prove to be season-defining.
Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” It almost feels like he saw into the future and caught a glimpse of this 2020 season for the Oakland A’s and the Houston Astros.
Assuming no further schedule changes due to Hurricane Laura, the Astros will play the first-place Athletics in a vital weekend home series. It wasn’t but four years ago that the A’s were the cellar-dwellers of the American League West, a team you could expect to beat up and use to build your confidence. That is no longer the case. Now, the A’s are a perennial playoff team and a true force to be reckoned with.
Oakland, along with Tampa Bay and New York, is considered one the favorites to win the pennant. Matt Chapman has morphed into a real MVP candidate. Matt Olson, Marcus Semien, Mark Cahna and former Astro Ramon Laureano have all blossomed into great two-way players. They pitch well, they defend well, they have swag, they have confidence. If this were a full season, they’d be on pace for 108 wins.
Houston, on the other hand, has struggled in this shortened season. They’ve played the first half of the season without Justin Verlander, and Yordan Alvarez is done for 2020 with a knee injury. The bullpen is full of guys who were pitching in the minors last year, and the hitting has regressed significantly from last year, in particular by Jose Altuve and George Springer.
A recent ESPN article called the 2020 Houston Astros “maybe mediocre.” Oh, and all 29 other teams and their fan bases want nothing but agony for the Astros since the sign-stealing scandal. With that said, Houston goes into this series only four games behind Oakland for first place. A good showing from the Astros this weekend could change the narrative in this division race.
Let’s take a look at what Houston has to do to make some positive memories this series.
Beat Good Pitching
Oakland’s strength is their pitching. They only walk three batters every nine innings, and they lead the league in runners left on base. In other words, the Athletics rarely walk batters, and they know how get out of a jam.
On the other hand, the Astros, who have a deep and potent lineup on paper, have yet to find their footing this year. Houston is 0-8 against teams with above average pitching this season (0-2 vs Dodgers, 0-3 vs. A’s, 0-3 vs. Padres). In those eight games, the Astros averaged six hits a game and only two extra-base hits per game – not exactly doing damage.
Despite that being a small sample size and the team not being at full strength, that’s still a concerning record that has got to improve. Houston needs to show they can rack up more big hits and take on the good pitching come playoff time.
Oakland isn’t a power offense themselves – they only bat .225 as a team. But what they do well is hit homers and capitalize off pitching mistakes. The A’s, much like Tampa Bay, pride themselves on discipline – only swinging at strikes, getting on base, and knocking the ball out of the park when it counts.
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The young Astros pitching has been very up-and-down but has mostly curtailed the high walk rates that were crippling them earlier this season. Guys like Blake Taylor, Enoli Paredes and Andre Scrubb have risen to the occasion and given Dusty Baker more options to go to in the later innings. If the young Houston bullpen can continue this trend with limited free passes and better pitch execution, that’ll give them a much-needed edge in this series.
Make Up Ground
Even though home field will not quite be the same this year with no fans and the looming potential of a playoff bubble, winning the division will still give them a huge advantage. Houston and Oakland only play one more series after this weekend – a four game set in Oakland.
Playing seven out of ten games against the A’s on the road isn’t ideal if Houston wants to chase down the division. It helps that Oakland has not played the Dodgers or Padres yet, but winning at least two games this weekend would keep Houston in striking distance for their four-game set in early September.
Take Back the Momentum
The last time these two teams met, the A’s dismantled the Astros in a convincing sweep. Dustin Garneau’s open-field tackle on Ramon Laureano in that infamous full-scale brawl was the only thing Houston did well that series. Meanwhile, the national media has dubbed the A’s the darlings of this MLB season, while the Astros are seen as treacherous villains and cheaters by all other fanbases.
Momentum is clearly on Oakland’s side as of late. The A’s are not afraid of Houston anymore, and they are fixated on winning a championship. But a lot can change in three games. A strong showing this weekend will remind the A’s that they should still be very afraid of Houston, especially when it counts in October.
Hopefully, if the Astros come to play and nail these four aspects of the series, they can look back on this weekend as one of the best — not the worst — parts of their 2020 season.