Fasten your seat belts...it’s going to be a bumpy night”
- Bette Davis, All About Eve (1950)
Perhaps Bette Davis didn’t have the final month of the 2023 MLB regular season in mind when she uttered that famous line, but it could certainly apply to the chase to the 2023 MLB post-season. A good number of franchises enter September with legitimate playoff aspirations, either benefiting from a relatively weak division (hello AL and NL Central), a battle royal for divisional supremacy (see AL East/West), or the chance to get one of 3 wild card spots (the Non-Atlanta/Los Angeles Dodgers NL teams in the East and West, most of the winning teams in the AL).
Among those would be the team that survived the 1st iteration of the new playoff system to win it all: the Houston Astros. At this point in the story, they sit at 72-58, and if the playoffs started today, they would hold the 3rd Wild Card spot, thus ensuring a date for a 3-game set in Minnesota. Yet, there are so many more possibilities for Houston this year. At the time of the writing, they are only 1.0 game back of the Rangers, who appear to have actual staying power and likely can plan for October baseball for the 1st time since 2016, even as they weather a 8-game losing streak. The team that wins the AL West likely locks up one of the two first-round byes to the ALDS. Yet, the Rangers are still within shouting distance of Baltimore (8.0 games back for home field through the AL playoffs), meaning that the Astros are still somewhat in the hunt for the top spot in AL once again.
However, and this is a bit of a shift in the Astros narrative, the team is now only holding on to the 3rd Wild Card by 1.5 games. After a disastrous sweep at home by the hands of the Mariners, Houston finds itself having to try to chase down the Rangers and worrying about the play of Seattle, who is now in a tie for the AL West lead. Yet, Seattle is not the sole threat to the Houston playoff chase. The Toronto Blue Jays sit only 1.5 games back in the Wild Card chase. Boston is only 3.5 games back, and they still get three more games against Houston, this time at Fenway.
While Houston might want its focus to be winning the AL West, there are some significant concerns in its Wild Card standings. With the weekend sweep, Seattle clinched the season series against Houston 8-2, with a 3-game set in Seattle later in September to finish the matchup. Additionally, Houston lost the season series to Toronto 4-3 when it lost a 4-game series in Toronto earlier in the season 3-1. With MLB now looking at head-to-head matchups as the first tiebreaker in playoff spots/seeds, the Astros are at a significant disadvantage with two of their biggest contenders. Thus, the upcoming 3-game series against Boston takes on more significance. If they lose that series, Houston will have lost the tiebreakers against 3 of the teams they are fighting to get a Wild Card slot.
Seattle would appear well positioned to continue its torrid run, with an extremely favorable schedule the next few weeks, before ending the season with two series against Texas and one against Houston. Toronto, while still mathematically alive for the AL East (10.5 games back), is getting healthy for a stretch run to secure a Wild Card spot. The aforementioned BOS-HOU tilt will have major ramifications for both teams as they battle for Wild Card positioning. Oh, and should Houston find itself in the last playoff spot to start the 2023 post-season, they would likely face the AL Central-leading Twins, who likely would have an inferior record but would a) have home-field advantage and b) also won the season series against Houston 4-2 (granted those games were played before the All-Star Break).
If there is any consolation for Houston vis-a-vis its tiebreaker status, they still hold the season series lead over the Rangers (6-4 with a 3-game set at TEX remaining), and while trailing Tampa Bay by 6.0 games for the 1st Wild Card, they hold the tie-breaker over them by virtue of a better division record (the season series split 3-3). However, for a team that mainly used September the past five full seasons as a chance to gear up for the post-season, the pressure to perform well in the last full month of the regular season will seem a little different.
Can they do that? While not the juggernaut of seasons past, the team still boasts plenty of talent. The starting rotation has not performed up to the expected standards since the All-Star Break, but they can pitch well when called upon. The offense, while too inconsistent for most tastes, has performed better since the break. Plus, no team can match the overall playoff experience boasted by Houston. Maybe the Astros have to face playoff-like pressure a little earlier than expected, but not impossible.
The team was not assured of a playoff spot in 2020 during the bastardized COVID season. Injuries and inconsistent play bedeviled the team, and they only just snuck into the expanded playoffs with a 29-31 record. Yet, once in the playoffs, the team resumed its role as a playoff monster (which was started by a 2-game sweep of Minnesota) and only just missed out on a pennant in a tight Game 7 loss in the ALCS.
So, as Bette Davis would advise, “Fasten your seat belts,” for September promises to be a very bumpy month. Astros fans are not quite used to this kind of pressure, a by-product of the domination of the franchise. Even with the 2023 Astros’ issues, they are still very much in the hunt. However, the drama is going to take more twists and turns than even Davis’ Margo Channing could imagine.