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Staring Down the Closing Stretch

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MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Astros have 127 games in the books and 35 left to play. They are 75–52 and hold a lead of 5 games over the A’s, 6 over the Mariners. Here’s a guide to the closing stretch

THE SCHEDULE

Think of the schedule as consisting in three parts:

  1. The long-road trip (9 games). This starts tomorrow, and covers three cities and two series against teams fighting for the playoffs (Seattle, San Diego, plus a geographical rival (Arlington). The Astros went 3-4 on their last road trip and looked bad doing it. A 5-4 road trip would be a realistic goal. Given how much the Padres are struggling, and how the Rangers lost both their best hitter (Gallo) and their best reliever (Kennedy), and how much the Astros own the Mariners, a great road trip could really dampen the hopes of their two closest divisional rivals.
  2. The soft middle of 17 games. These are the games after the road trip against the following teams: Seattle (3), Arizona (3), Texas (4), Angels (7). Only 2 of the five series are on the road. Going something like 12-5 is realistic. 11-6 would probably do the trick.
  3. The hard stretch run: we close with 3 games @ Oakland, and then six games at home with Tampa Bay and Oakland again. 5-4 would be realistic. 4-5 would be fine.

FINDING A WINS GOAL

If the Astros, go 5-4, 11-6, and 5-4 in these three patches, they’ll end up with 96 wins. In terms of the division, the A’s would need to go 26-9 against a much tougher schedule to tie the Astros. The Mariners would need to go 27-8. Both teams will most likely need to dominate the Astros in head-to-head.

In terms of the playoff seeds, the Astros are currently the 2 seed. The White Sox have fallen off, but they play in the easiest division. They have some tough series ahead, however, with Oakland, Boston, and Cincinnati. They’ll be either 2 or 3 games behind Houston after they play Toronto today. They, like the Astros, are most likely playing out the schedule to determine whether they’re the road or home team in the Divisional Series.

The Rays (and Yankees) have been scalding. The Rays, up 4 on the Astros, will likely be the 1 seed and the Yankees the 4 seed, facing either Boston, Oakland, or Seattle in the WC. The WC winner plays the 1 seed.

Like most seasons, getting to the AL playoffs means you have to play really good teams any way you cut it. There’s a chance the 2nd WC could beat the 4 seed in a one-game series with their ace (Manaea or Chris Sale anyone?), and then have said ace unavailable until Game 3). In all likelihood, the Astros will have to play their very best baseball to win any series.

PITCHING SCENARIOS

The best result for the Astros would be getting out to a huge lead and seeing Oakland and Seattle fall off. This would allow them to rest their starters. You want your best guys fresh for the playoffs, something Dusty may understand better than Hinch did in 2019, when JV and Cole seemed a little tired for the playoffs after chasing the CY Young award.

35 divided by 5 (starters) is 7. Here are the guys you don’t want to make 7 more starts before the playoffs: McCullers (127 IP), Garcia (123 IP), and Greinke (155 IP). Here are the guys you don’t mind making 7 more starts: Valdez (98 IP), Urquidy (77 IP), and Odorizzi (79 IP). Per ESPN’s pitcher WAR, 5 of those starters are in the top 6 in Astro pitcher WAR this year, all accumulating between 1.7 and 2.6 WAR. Odorizzi is the outlier by far, producing 0.2 WAR. He hasn’t been atrocious but he’s clearly the 6th best starter.

There are two scenarios: in the first, the Astros need every possible chance to win games, and they skip Jake in September. The other, more preferable, is they open up an even larger lead and use Jake as an innings eater. Urquidy will make one more minor-league start, so he’ll probably get the chance at 6 more starts in Houston. If Jake makes 7 more, then you can spread out the remaining 22 starts among Valdez (6), Greinke (5), Garcia (5) and Lance (5), with maybe a bullpen game on the last day.

If the Astros need to ride Greinke, Garcia, and Lance through the last weekend of the season, it bodes poorly for the playoffs.

EXPANDED ROSTER SCENARIOS

The Astro are only adding two more players to get to 28. My guess is that they go 15 pitchers and 13 regulars (keeping Jones, and adding McCormack to have a bench of Diaz, McCormack/Meyers, Castro, and Jones; maybe they’ll sub Stubbs for Jones).

They currently have 14 pitchers on their 26-man. Add Urquidy and you get your number. That would give the team 6-man rotation and 9 guys in the bullpen: Pressly, Graveman, Stanek, Maton, Y Garcia, Javier, Raley, Taylor, Abreu. Notice who’s missing?

Sorry Baez and Josh James, get your velo back and we’ll see you in 2022? Maton and Abreu seem the most likely to implode and get sent back down.

AIMING FOR OCTOBER

That 28-man roster will shrink to 26 for the playoffs. The 13 position players are set, with Jones likely pinch-hitting for the catcher spot, and. The far-sighted intrigue among players, barring injury, is whether Diaz’s forces his way into the starting playoff lineup with his bat. This would mean Tucker in CF, Brantley in RF, and Diaz/Alvarez in LF. Otherwise the starting CF role is still up for grabs.

On the pitching side, it seems nothing is set. I would imagine Lance or Framber is our Game 1 starter. Then the case can be made for Garcia, Urquidy, or Greinke as Game 3. I would guess Greinke because his stuff doesn’t work out of the BP. Jake would have to be lights out to make the playoff roster. The regular regulars simply need to do whatever they need to feel good going into the playoffs.

Dusty will want the two lefties + his 7,8,9 of Stanek, Graveman, and Pressly. The remaining 4 slots will be decided among the following players: the loser of the 4th starter sweepstakes (Garcia or Urquidy), and Garcia, Maton, Javier, and Abreu. Luis Garcia, Javier, and Urquidy are playoff-proven, so its’s essentially 4 for 3 slots. Javier and Maton have inside positions, but a strong showing by Abreu might force Dusty’s hand. Likewise, an injury or two could mean that Peter Solomon, Josh James, and/or Pedro Baez could pitch their way onto the roster.