Astros: Potential opening round opponents in playoffs

The Houston Astros would face one of these three teams in the first round of the playoffs.

It is the last week of the season and, barring any 2007 New York Mets-type collapse, Houston will make the postseason as the sixth seed. The expanded playoffs come as somewhat of a gift to the Astros, who have been crippled all season with injuries and poor play, not to mention the back-breaking news this weekend that Justin Verlander is out for this season and beyond with Tommy John surgery.

The Astros are hobbling into the playoffs, having had difficulty in beating last-place teams and struggling to put together any semblance of good offense. Prior to Tuesday’s win, the Astros offense put up a putrid .193 batting average and a .569 OPS in its previous nine games while averaging only six hits per game (yuck).

The Astros have managed to make Kyle Gibson look like Roy Halladay and make 2020 Madison Bumgarner look like 2014 Madison Bumgarner. Meanwhile, Alex Bregman is hitting like Billy Hamilton, Carlos Correa is hitting like Adam Everett and Yuli Gurriel is hitting like Pedro Cerrano (you know, the Allstate commercial guy). It’s bizarre to see a juggernaut offense become below average in such little time.

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As a sixth seed, Houston will have to go on the road and win a series if they want to advance beyond the opening round. Let’s take a look at the most likely matchups for the Astros.

Oakland Athletics

CLEVELAND, OHIO – MAY 22: Mark Canha #20 of the Oakland Athletics celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run during the sixth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on May 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The most likely scenario is playing our old AL West rivals in the Oakland Coliseum. The A’s are anchored by great pitching along with solid overall depth in their lineup. They are truly a moneyball team in that they are patient at the plate, capitalize on mistakes and rely on their superior bullpen to shut down games. It’s been a tall task for anyone to beat the A’s at home — they are 20-8 at home and are a dominating 14-3 at home against AL West opponents.

The Astros did not fare well against the A’s, going 3-7 in the season series and 1-7 in their games in Oakland. Fortunately, these A’s go into the playoffs not playing their best baseball. They lost big against the Giants on Sunday and are still adjusting to life without All-Star Matt Chapman, who underwent season ending hip surgery. It’s also worth mentioning that the A’s have struggled recently in the playoffs the last couple years, losing in the wild card game the last two years.

Chicago White Sox

CLEVELAND, OHIO – SEPTEMBER 21: Eloy Jimenez #74 and Jose Abreu #79 of the Chicago White Sox celebrate after both had RBI hits during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on September 21, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The next most likely opponent is the Chicago White Sox, who’ve been the up and coming darlings of the American League. The White Sox have a mammoth offense, to say the least — they have multiple players batting over .300 and have five players who could hit 30-plus homers in a full season. They are led by MVP favorite Jose Abreu, beast leadoff man Tim Anderson, as well as Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Yasmani Grandal, Luis Robert and professional home run hitter Edwin Encarnacion. The Astros’ young bullpen was fortunate to not face this team in the regular season, because that might have been ugly to watch.

While the White Sox are known for their offense, they still have a pretty good rotation that could be formidable in the playoffs. They have Lucas Giolito, who threw a no-hitter this year and averages 11 strikeouts per nine innings, followed by former Astros Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (please come back) and Dylan Cease. Their bullpen is solid, and closer Alex Colome is arguably having his best year as a pro.

Tampa Bay Rays

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 11: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays throws a pitch during the first inning against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field on September 11, 2020 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

James Click’s old team has been dominating this season and could end up being the top seed in the AL by the end of the week. However, if that is not the case and they fall to the third seed, that might spell trouble for our Houston Astros. The strength of Tampa Bay is their pitching — they’re led by Cy Young winner Blake Snell, big scary strikeout machine Tyler Glasnow, Astros favorite Charlie Morton (please come back too) and Ryan Yarborough. Their offense, led by Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames, may not be as potent as Chicago but can still pack a ton of punch up and down the lineup.

Houston’s kryptonite is Tropicana Field. The Astros were smoked in games four and five of the 2019 ALDS and were swept in an Opening Day series last year. I don’t know what it is about that ballpark — perhaps because it feels like you’re in a giant warehouse in 80 percent humidity — but the Astros have never fared well there and the idea of winning two out of three at Tropicana Field with this year’s squad seems laughable.

So who should Houston play?

None of the options are good, especially without Verlander pitching. It’s hard to see the Astros turning their offense around in Tampa Bay. The White Sox are young and perhaps the playoffs become too big for them, but I wouldn’t want any part of that team on the road.

Although the Astros struggled versus Oakland, I think playing the A’s is their best chance of winning a series. They’ve played eight games there this season, they know the ballpark and their pitchers, and Oakland’s lack of recent playoff success could be a psychological factor.

All of this won’t matter of course if the Astros cannot turn around their recent offensive woes. Astros hitters must start finding the barrel more often, must start to hit the ball out of the park and must capitalize when they have runners on base. I don’t know how they’ll do it — maybe we should all get out our Jobu voodoo doll and ask him to wake those Astros bats up.

Let’s hope Dusty Baker can pull the right levers soon and help the team find its offensive groove, no matter who they play. They’ve done it before, and hopefully they can do it again.