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The Astros’ schedule eases up before raising the difficulty level up to ten

The upcoming schedule is kind to Houston for a month prior to arguably their toughest stretch in late June.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Thus far in 2022, the AL West appears to be a two-team race between the Astros and Angels. Only one-and-a-half games separate the two clubs, who arguably have the best talent within the division on their respective rosters. Of course, we’re only now in late May, and it remains a bit early to make any definitive claims. If you want to, then that’s fine. But, I’d rather err on the side of caution as I’ve seen enough late-season collapses across the sport to ever truly become too comfortable. But I am confident that Houston has a higher probability than most of winning the division, as evidenced by their 81.2 percent chance per FanGraphs.

But there is a reason why they play the games and do not entirely rely on the projections. To be clear, I am not expecting a collapse by the Astros in 2022, but sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t go according to plan. The 2016 Astros, for example, had the look of a team ready to contend, but let a downright awful April spoil their season. Plus, the Angels have a look — and feel — of a team ready to take advantage of the expanded postseason field. Their offense is the best in baseball if you judge it by wRC+. Second-best by runs scored. The pitching staff is solid and has made strides over the last season. If certain things break right for them — and not for Houston — it isn’t outlandish to think Los Angeles could come away with the division title. Not likely based on what we know today, but there is a possibility.

I write all of this not to pump the Angels more than I ought to. After all, I expect some regression to hit them...sooner or later. Instead, I want to illustrate how the Astros have a prime opportunity to generate more separation and pad their one-and-a-half game lead over the Angels since it appears that they aren’t going away anytime soon. First, let’s look at Houston’s schedule from now (May 23) through June 20.

  • Guardians, three games in Minutes Maid Park
  • Mariners, three games at Seattle
  • Athletics, three games at Oakland
  • Royals, three games at Kansas City
  • Mariners, three games in Minute Maid Park
  • Marlins, three games in Minute Maid Park
  • Rangers, three games at Arlington
  • White Sox, three games in Minute Maid Park

The Astros play 24 games against clubs for roughly a month with a combined .431 winning percentage. Only one club — the White Sox — possesses a winning record entering today at 21-20. The home and road split is exactly even at 12 games apiece, with a nine-game road trip through Seattle, Oakland, and Kansas City in the mix. While none of these clubs are at the same level as, say, the Reds, Pirates, or Nationals, they do represent, in theory, a softer portion of the schedule for Houston. After all, the Astros will probably appreciate this part of the schedule, considering who they play from June 21 through July 3.

  • Mets, two games in Minute Maid Park
  • Yankees, four games at New York
  • Mets, two games at New York
  • Yankees, one game in Minute Maid Park (thank you, baseball owners, for pushing back the start of the season)
  • Angels, three games in Minute Maid Park

Entering today’s action, those three clubs above have a combined .654 winning percentage this season. One of them — the Yankees — is probably the best team in baseball at this particular moment. The Mets only trail the Dodgers and Padres in the NL in winning percentage. We already know that the Angels are playing good baseball. Needless to say, the Astros will have their work cut out for them as they only play these three clubs for 12 consecutive games.

While I won’t declare that June 21 through July 3, at this moment, is a stretch of “make-or-break” games, it does feel imperative that the Astros win as many games as they can over the prior four or so weeks. A potentially grueling twelve-game set against two of the best teams in baseball plus an improved division rival could create some unexpected turbulence for the defending AL champions. While the Astros may answer the call and take care of business, they shouldn’t let a prime opportunity in front of them slip away. If they do, it may create anxiety over the standings than what many of us were anticipating this season.