The Astros dropped two of three against the Angels over the weekend and now head to Arlington for four games. Houston holds a 1.5 game lead over the Rangers. It seemed like a perfect time to have the TCB staff talk the key factors for the series.
What will be the biggest factor in the series with the Rangers?
Rangers starting pitching is the biggest factor. I had a fun conversation with a neighbor die hard Rangers fan this weekend, and he termed Derek Holland as an "ace" and said Colby Lewis is better than anybody the Astros have. Needless to say, I terminated the discussion because I saw it wasn't going anywhere good. But yeah.
Holland has pitched unreasonably out of his mind late this season, and I can't get behind the results. His 4.19 FIP and career 4.18 ERA just don't substantiate it. But he's limiting walks, and that's key for me. But that .255 BABIP. Lightning in a bottle. If he can keep it up, the Rangers could mow over the Astros in his starts. But at some point, the luck will run out. Same with Colby Freaking Lewis, who at age 36 almost tossed a no-hitter in his last start. This despite his 4.45 ERA. I don't see that he pitch like that consistently, but stranger things have happened during individual series. Yovani Gallardo has been a mess of late, giving up walks and hits but keeping his ERA down. Luck, again, in that his run prevention has been better than his actual pitching has. Martin Perez and Nick Martinez aren't scary at all, but are capable of good starts. And Cole Hamels is an ace who hasn't pitched like one lately. The Rangers don't make sense right now.
So for me, the biggest factor is: will the Rangers' rotation continue to ridiculously over-perform? If so, it will be a dogfight that leans in the Rangers' favor -- I believe in the Astros' pitching staff, but not the consistency of the bats. If the Rangers staff goes back to pitching to their talent level, then the Astros could roll this series with ease.
The first key for me will be Kazmir and McCullers. Kazmir has had a couple of bad starts in a row and needs to put up a good showing in game one. McCullers has only had one quality start on the road since July. He either has given up too many runs, or when he doesn't he only makes it five innings. They will bookend this series around Keuchel and McHugh. I think if one or both of them has a good game we can take the series...IF...
...the bats can come alive. As fun as it was to win by scoring five runs with two outs in the ninth inning, it sure would be nice (on the road) to string together three hits in an inning and push across a run now and again. The Rangers pitching staff is not populated with world-beaters. The offense needs to help out the starting pitching this week.
Chris' answer is much more intelligent than my obvious one, but I think our ability to regain some success against left handed pitching is going to be key. Obviously we've had success against lefties this season - we're second in the MLB in extra base hits versus lefties, seventh in runs scored, eighth in OPS, etc. - but recently?
We've faced Andrew Heaney (5.0 IP, 0 R), Hector Santiago (7.0, 2 R - both on solo home runs), Felix Doubront (6.0 IP, 4 R - one of which was a solo Jonathan Villar HR and another an inherited runner - Max Stassi - who scored on Carlos Correa's 469' bomb off right handed reliever Fernando Rodriguez), and Roenis Elias (5.1 IP, 4 R - one of which was a Jake Marisnick solo home run and the fourth of which was an inherited runner - Jed Lowrie - who scored on an RBI single by Jose Altuve off right handed reliever Mayckol Guiape) in September.
Clearly we've had some success, but solo home runs have played a large part in that success. Texas is a good place to hit home runs, but we're facing several left handed starters in a row against Texas (Hamels, Perez, Holland) and it seems likely that the Rangers are going to score some runs in at least a couple of these games, so we're likely going to have to succeed against these lefties.
Perez isn't scary at all, I agree there - we had good at bats, solid hits and scored three runs against him in the only game we've faced him in this year, plus he's struggling mightily so far in September after a surprisingly decent August - but Hamels has a track record of being tough, even if he's struggled some in Texas so far, and Holland has been pretty hot recently. Not saying we can't beat them all, I'm just saying that we're going to have to find success that's at least slightly improved over our recent success against left handed starters to do it.
I think the key has to be the inconsistent part of Houston's performance currently - the bats. The Astros' starting pitching has been mostly consistent, while the bats have come and gone. I expect all four of Houston's starters to keep the Astros in the game. Springer's Sunday afternoon was very encouraging, and recording hits hasn't been much of a problem for the Astros overall - driving in the runners has instead been the issue. Running up pitch counts of Texas' starters, and working the Rangers effective (but thin) bullpen will be crucial for the Astros.
I believe the bullpens will decide the series. For the full season, the Astros have a decided edge, ranking 5th in baseball while the Rangers are 24th (Fangraphs). Two factors make it much closer than that: the Astros relievers have been worse on the road, and for the month of August while the Astros bullpen was 2nd in baseball the Rangers were 4th. Hopefully the comeback Sunday will fuel a return to the beginning of the season when the Astros piled up runs against opposing bullpens.
After some thought, I'll say; it will depend on whether or not the Astros execute.
By which I mean a TON of our recent losses have been very close games that came down to just a few plays or a lack of hitting with RISP on our part. Even though our starting pitching normalized after that crazy-good run in August. they've still been good, and the bullpen has largely still been okay. The Astros have to execute; this nonsense of the lead-off hitter reaching and then being stranded MULTIPLE times in each game can't happen.
What should also be taken away from that is this; I believe the Astros are the clearly-superior team, and that means they only lose this series if they make mistakes and fail to execute. If they play up to their potential, they're flat-out better than the Rangers and should take 3-of-4.
Jason brings up a good point about the three consecutive Lefthanded starters. The Astros hit LHPs and RHPs about the same (in terms of OPS), but the Astros score almost one-half run less per game when a LH pitcher starts. LH starters put a damper on Valbuena, Rasmus, and Tucker, who are important cogs in supplying HR power. Altuve, Springer, and Correa are capable of destroying LHPs; it's important for them to be on their game. It will be interesting to see how Hinch uses Matt Duffy and/or Chris Carter against LHP. The Rangers have a good HR park, which should play to Carter's strength. And, one would assume that Duffy was called up to provide some offense against LHPs.
The other key for the Astros is maintaining their poise in this ballpark. The Arlington ballpark can give up a lot of runs in a hurry, and the pitchers can't get rattled when it happens. Also, I expect a madhouse playoff-type atmosphere from the crowd. The Astros have a lot of young players who haven't experienced this type of hostile environment. It's good experience for the Astros, and hopefully will help when they get into the playoffs.
We're all forgetting the biggest factor - the Astros need to sabotage the Rangers infielders' gloves and the outfield wall padding. And Fiers needs to continue his use of pine tar in every start.
I am going to go in a different route, and name an x-factor on the offensive side for each team.
The return of the injured stars - Adrian Beltre for them, George Springer for us. Adrian Beltre is a beast with the bat. He can, and has, absolutely carried the entire Rangers' offense before, and our pitching must not allow that to happen this series. Beltre returned from injury a while ago, and if I recall correctly, struggled when he first came back. The Rangers' offense felt that, and it took a hit. Then it clicked for Beltre, and he has been his old self, where he can launch just about any pitch out of any part of the stadium. That is about the same time that the Rangers' started playing consistently good baseball. It could be a simple coincidence, but it never hurts to add another stable, power threat in your everyday lineup.
For us, Springer has returned a lot more recently as compared to Beltre, but he is just as important. The positive news is that I have noticed a lot of very good at bats of late. It looks like he is getting more comfortable with live pitching, and getting his timing down. When he gets going, he is simply fun to watch. I remember last year, amid his tear, he came up at MMP late in the game, and the game was close (either tied or we were down). For some reason I just knew he was going to come up with a big hit, and sure enough, he launches it into the Crawford Boxes. All I could do was smile, and marvel at the talent. He also has tremendous opposite field power. The ball carries really well to the right-center power ally. This would be a great time to find the power stroke back, and with his recent solid at bats, this could be the perfect time and place to unleash that seemingly limitless power.
Coincidentally, both Beltre and Springer are really good defensive players at their respective positions too. Beltre's defense at third can actually play an important role against us, specifically against Altuve. I remember a series against the Rays, and he must have roped it several times to Evan Longoria. Longoria made the play the first 2 or 3 times, but Altuve eventually hit a line drive past him. This could be a good time for Altuve to start ripping it oppo like he has the capability to do. And Springer, we don't have to remind Astros' (and Rangers') fans about the impact of great defensive plays. The grand slam that he robbed, which was big at the time, can ultimately be even more important, as we battle to stay atop our division.
Meaningful September baseball...now this is fun!
Something as simple as the weather could also be a factor.
The Rangers are putting several lefties on the mound. As a team, the Astros have the highest flyball percentage in MLB against lefties this year - 38% - and with game-time temperatures in the low nineties with double-digit winds blowing to the outfield expected for the series, we could see several of those flyballs turn into home runs.
The last time the Astros came into town, the temperatures were in the high nineties, but the winds were blowing in from the outfield.
AccuWeather had an article last year (http://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/changes-in-air-density-can-aff/28805375) that showed five ways weather could affect a game. The affects are relatively minor, but when combined with all of the other answers, you have to like the little bit of edge that the weather for this series can give to the Astros hitters against left-handed pitchers.