Since the golden era began, the Astros are in unfamiliar territory this year as the calendar turns to June 27th. Houston woke up this morning tied for second in the division, five games behind the Texas Rangers.
This time last season, they led the division by 10.5 games, they were three up at this point in 2021, five-and-a-half clear in 2019, three-and-a-half clear in 2018 and 13 up in 2017. Trailing at this point of the season is new for those Astros that weren't around in the lean years, but even still, Houston is far from out of the division race.
After an off-day Monday, the Astros kick off a huge stretch in their season, particularly their next six games. The Astros begin a three-game series with the woeful St. Louis Cardinals tonight. Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier and J.P. France will take the ball in those three games. Anything less than taking two out of three in this stretch would be a failure, and while the Cardinal are still a team of professionals, they've been in disarray and have a pitching staff that simply can't get outs right now.
If there were ever a time for the bats to wake up, these three games feel like a good time to do so. With their two best arms throwing, Houston should make easy work of St. Louis.
After that, a huge three-game stand takes place against the Rangers.
Ronel Blanco will square off with Nathan Eovaldi on Friday. The Rangers will be heavy favorites that night, though Eovaldi has been more gettable in recent weeks, posting a 3.77 ERA this month as his velocity has diminished.
Hunter Brown will take on Andrew Heaney on Saturday in one of the biggest starts of the young rookie's career. Brown's line on the season is much better than Heaney's, and that will be a game the Astros need to win.
Framber Valdez will then be in line to start Sunday against Martín Perez in another matchup that on paper should favor the Astros.
The Rangers lineup can flat out mash, so nothing is a sure thing, but they draw favorable matchups in two of the three games. If the Astros can sweep the Cardinals and take two of three from Texas, that would be massive. It's the type of performance we've seen from this team time and time again over the years, rising up when the lights are brightest.
They did so back in April of this year, taking five of six from the Braves and Rays, the two best teams in the MLB. If Houston can do that, there's a very real chance they come out of this week with a division deficit of only 2.5 games.
They'll then face a dreadful Rockies team twice and host the Mariners for a four-game stand heading into the All-Star Break.
If the Astros have a series of counter punches in them before the break, the next 12 games are the time to throw them. Landing a haymaker in the first six by beating up on an inferior Cardinals team and then taking two-of-three from Texas may be exactly what the doctor ordered to get the Astros back on top of the division.