For the last three years now we’ve watched the Astros play meaningful baseball late into the season, cashing out with a division title last year and an ALDS berth as the Wild Card in 2015. Those two playoff years were glorious.
Games meant something again after so many years of hollow baseball. The crack of the bat was a little bit sharper and the pop of the glove was a little bit louder because you knew that Summer would last a little bit past September those years. There were echoes of 1998 and 2005 in both of those seasons, a team of dominance in one year and a scrappy underdog in the other.
But this year has been better.
Of Races Past
2015 was great because it was unexpected. After the dark times of 2011 to 2014 it was hard to see the Astros playing competitive baseball for at least another few years. Yet here they were, pummeling opposition right out of the gate and looking like they were going to run away with the AL West. Ultimately though, the Rangers would yank the division out of their hands with a 4 game mid-September sweep in Arlington.
Houston would never regain its footing in the West, but did fend off a late push from the Angels to claim the Wild Card. Though there was certainly some excitement in that run, the 5th seed felt almost like a consolation prize after what had been such a great year. We were all still reeling from the fall from grace at Globe Life as the season came to an end.
Then there was 2016, which was mostly a lost year. The Astros would threaten at one point, drawing to 2.5 games back in the division, but by the end of the year the Rangers had pretty much wrapped it up and Houston wasn’t much of a factor in September.
And finally 2017 would wipe away all the tears. That season was fun as Houston would dominate the West. No one came within spitting distance as the Astros waltzed all the way to the finish line, ending with 101 wins and a double-digit lead in the division dating all the way back to May 28th.
Now I know that a lot of people probably think that this was the best season of Astros baseball in the Luhnow era. There was no need to worry about which upstart team was going to trip us up and which series could possibly be a back breaker. Best of all, we had dethroned the Rangers in a convincing fashion, finally taking the season series and claiming the title of best in Texas.
But even knowing all of that, 2018 has been better.
A True Race
2018 started with so many expectations. Defending world champs who had retained most of last year’s offense and added pitching depth with Cole to go with a full year of Verlander. Sure, there were whispers of improvement in other teams. Shohei Ohtani loomed large out in California, Seattle was forever making moves, and Oakland could expect to improve with its explosive offensive core. But confidence was running high and it was back to back or bust.
And for a hot minute it looked like it was going to be a repeat of last year. Houston quickly jumped out to a 9-2 record before sputtering and going 1-5 in their next 6. That was the first sign of what was to come.
The Angels Swoop In
April was a jolt. After the glow of last season’s dominance faded Houston looked up to find themselves in the thick of a three-team race before the second month of the season. The Angels looked like they had hit the jackpot with Ohtani and were neck-and-neck with Houston in the division. Seattle was also charging hard out of the box, grabbing close wins left and right and momentarily pushing the Astros all the way down to 3rd.
The talk was how Ohtani would meld with Trout in the next few years and it would all be over for the champs. LA was going to be the big challenge, nipping Houston’s heels all season even if it wouldn’t yet be enough to push them over the edge. The Astros would recover the division lead, but it was clear that this was not 2017 anymore.
Until halfway through May the two teams would jockey for position, trading first place in a ballet of nervous exhilaration and empty despair for their respective fans. Eventually things would begin to fade for the Angels as injuries mounted, and they would start to fall away as Houston held steady.
But lurking just behind them...
The Mariners Make Waves
Seattle would tread water around 3 games back while the Angels and Astros duked it out for first. Beneficiaries of an inordinate amount of luck and late inning heroics, they would make a charge for Houston in late May, drawing even and temporarily surpassing the Astros in June.
Now the talk was all about close games and how Seattle looked poised to return to October for the first time in over two decades. Edwin Díaz appeared capable of saving all 162 games while the offense gained a reputation for timely rallies. In the darkest corners of Pike Place they whispered that the Mariners were the new AL West champs.
Seattle would hold the division crown for almost two weeks before Houston was able to claw it back, but that wasn’t the end of the threat. The Mariners hovered between one half to 3 or so games behind Houston all the way through July. The Astros were constantly looking over their shoulders until the M’s finally began to regress and fade from the division race right around the All Star Break.
And all seemed right with the world again, until...
The Athletics Flex Their Muscles
There had been talk about the A’s up and coming offense, who had shown flashes of 2018’s power last season, but no one expected them to come roaring up the standings like they did midsummer. What had been a comfortable division lead evaporated until all of a sudden the two teams were tied on August 18th.
Of all the teams to challenge Houston this year, Oakland looked to be the most legitimate threat for the crown. They were young and explosive and featured pitching that was hitting above its belt. They were scary.
And the A’s have stayed close. They knocked on the door a few times, tying with Houston twice and staying right there with them for almost a full month. Even now, though the math is daunting for them, they sit within striking distance and the Astros will need to stay alert the rest of the way to ensure their season doesn’t come down to a one-game playoff.
But How is this Better?
I’ll tell you, convenient narrative title. Because it feels like Houston is earning the division this year as opposed to almost having it handed to them in 2017. They’ve fended off offensives from three separate teams this season and came away (so far) victorious.
With every threat Houston was challenged to stay ahead, to keep winning games against tough opponents while also winning the ones they were supposed to. They rose to that challenge, showing determination in the face of unexpected obstacles. At times it has been hard to remember that the record is actually better this season because of how tense and close the division has felt.
September games have had a playoff feel to them. My palms sweat and my heart beats as I pray to whatever deity will take me that Verlander gets that one last strike or Altuve puts one in the center field gap. I feel the breathless joy of victory just a little bit more while the unwelcome sting of defeat is so much more painful.
We didn’t have this last year and it felt cheapened in 2015, but this is a race. A true race for the division so the winner doesn’t have to start October fighting for survival. A chance to show the rest of the league that the Astros are the best teams in one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball. The only thing that will make this better is winning it, which is not a lock thanks to the A’s talent.
It doesn’t matter if the record is better or that the offense isn’t as dominant as 2017’s lineup. This team, this year, is more exciting to root for. We get to witness September baseball that truly matters, something we haven’t seen consistently in over a decade. For us, Summer lasts just a little bit longer in 2018.
And it’s the best.