I sometimes feel like I try to play the optimist too often. The Astros’ recent spate of injuries has been pretty brutal, with the lineup looking like an April Round Rock game at the moment, but it’s hard to feel too down about that.
Granted, there are a variety of factors that have softened those blows, which would be massive for most other teams, with the two biggest being that their 7.5 game lead over the second-place A’s is larger than every other division leader outside of the Twins and Dodgers, and that the weird scheduling makes the rest of their schedule much easier than what they’ve gone through already.
Of course, it also helps that the young call-ups have stepped things up in a time of need; while it’s not as exciting as the winning streaks Houston has gone on multiple times already in 2019, the team still hasn’t lost a series since the start of May (the April 29-May 2 series against the Twins, specifically), and that includes holding off strong Cubs and Red Sox teams (the latter, multiple times). As long as the fill-ins can keep that up through the next few weeks (which, again, should be easier), it doesn’t feel like there should be anything to worry about.
But things can’t be that rosy overall, right? Not with this much value on the IL. If one wanted to play the devil’s advocate about the next month or so, what would that look like?
Well, with the next series being against the strong and currently-streaking Oakland A’s, there are some upcoming spots of concern to be on the look out for. The first is that, while this isn’t the worst time for the injury bug to hit, it’s also not the best. As mentioned, those A’s games take on extra weight now that they look like the playoff contender everyone expected them to be, including a 15-9 May that finally vaulted them to .500 a week ago.
But it’s not just those A’s games. Sure, June will have series against the Orioles and Blue Jays, but it will also feature series against the Brewers and a Yankees team that has had injury issues or its own, yet kept on winning (and that second set is a four-game set in Yankee Stadium, at that). You could even see reason to be mildly concerned about the Reds (+63 run differential) and Pirates (.500 record) series.
Compare that with every month after that. July will include three more games against the A’s, but the rest of the month looks incredibly middling between the Cardinals (currently 26-28, +12 run differential), the Indians (28-27, -6) the Rockies (27-27, +0), the Rangers (27-26, +17), and the Angels (26-29, -11).
August looks even easier, with series against the Rays and A’s balanced with more against the Rockies, Orioles, White Sox, Blue Jays, Mariners, and Angels. And September is more of the same, with one A’s series, one short Brewers one, then the Royals, Rangers, and multiple series against the Angels and M’s.
On the whole…I suppose that’s a reason for caution, at least. But ultimately, it doesn’t do much to worry me. Every month has an A’s series, so the real differences more or less come down to the second tough series. But is four games against the Yankees so much worse than three against the Rays, or a month of games against teams bobbing around .500, to feel worried? Probably not. And this isn’t getting into potential benefits the injured players having more time to recover before the postseason.
And it’s not like the A’s are getting cakewalks in those months anyway. Their June sees them playing both of their Tampa Bay series on the year and a pair of Cardinals games on top of an Orioles series and games against the other four AL West teams. In July, they get all seven of their Twins series and two games against the Brewers to go with the Astros, White Sox, Rangers, and Mariners. August brings more Cardinals games, a Cubs series, and most of their Yankees games (although the Royals, Giants, and White Sox will lighten that stretch). September is really the next month were there’s a good argument that the Astros have a harder go of things outside of the Oakland-Houston series, which is…pretty pathetic, honestly, given how light their September looks.
Really, the only really concerning thing is that monthly A’s series. As Brian mentioned yesterday, the Astros only have 25 games left against contending teams*, but 14 of those are against Oakland. If Oakland has a good run, that of course makes it easier for them to catch up. But that also gives us a good frame of reference for what it would take for them to actually unseat the ‘Stros.
*Or, to be more specific, teams that had winning records as of 5/28; technically, the Indians and Rangers both reached a game over .500 on Wednesday night, but at the same time, those two don’t feel nearly as threatening as the clearly-contending teams mentioned in Brian’s article. For what it’s worth, though, the Astros have three more against the Indians and nine more against Texas, while the A’s have fourteen more against Texas.
If they split those remaining 14 games, the A’s still need to be about 8 games better than the Astros the rest of the way, which would be difficult even if they didn’t have a harder schedule. Each win they get above 7 of 14 will cut down on that 8 game mark, but of course that also means not reaching that 7 win mark will be pretty devastating to their chances of an AL West title.
Given that they’ve already gone 1-4 against the Astros this year, this already feels like a pretty tall order. If the A’s are going to try and overtake the Astros, this midseason weekend series against a weakened roster is already crucial to their chances, but the Astros are on a hot streak of their own and will be taking their three best starters in against Oakland’s much more mediocre rotation.
Even the worst case scenario in the next series for the Astros, a sweep on the road, is still just the first step in a long process for the Athletics, and to makes matters even more difficult for them, they’ll still be playing seven of their last eleven games against the Astros in Houston, and will (hopefully) be facing a tougher, healthier team in those later games than what they see the next few days. There’s a chance for them to make a move, but they really don’t have a lot of room for error here. That certainly is not enough to write off their chances entirely, but it should help any nervous Houstonians sleep a little easier.