The more optimistic among us thought that, once the Astros got healthy and got into the soft underbelly of their mid-September schedule, they would open up a 4-5 game lead, skip a few turns in the rotation, and walk to a division title. Last week disabused us of that notion as the Good Guys went 2-4 against the two worst teams in the American League.
Still, the Astros have a clear advantage. They’re 1.5 games up on Arlington and 2.5 up on Seattle. Those teams have an extra game, but it’s against one another, which makes being “only one game and two games back in the loss column” a moot point, since they’re guaranteed to go, collectively 1-1 on the day they play during the Astros’ off-day.
Division Race Breakdown
Astros: 12 games remaining: Baltimore (3), Kansas City (3) @ Seattle (3) @ Arizona (3). 9 of 12 games against teams with something to play for. With the regular off day on Thursdays this month, the Astros have been going with a five-man rotation and giving every starter five days of rest except for the Friday starter, who goes again on the Wednesday game on four days of rest. This week, that’s Javier against the Orioles, the starter you least want out there. I’d strongly consider an opener and maybe some Urquidy/Javier combination. Or heck, bring up Blanco. It’s too important of a game to do give to Javier.
While the NL division races are over, the NL WC race is insane, with 6 teams within two games of a WC. Unless Arizona wins 8 of 9 or loses 8 of 9 before hosting Houston, they’re likely fighting for their lives on the final weekend of the season.
Bottom line: 7-5 over the final 12 and avoiding a sweep against the Mariners probably does it for clinching the division.
Arlington: 13 games remaining: Boston (3) Seattle (3), @ Angles (3), @ Seattle (4). 7 of 13 games against teams with something to play for. The Angles won’t have Ohtani but Trout might come back. They’re a weird team with almost no consistency. Sweeping Toronto last week really turned things around for them, but then they got swept by Cleveland, with two games being non-competitive. They have the easiest road of the teams competing in the AL West.
Seattle: 13 games remaining: @ Oakland (3), @ Arlington (3), Houston (3), Arlington (4) Tough weekend against the Dodgers. Brutal might be the better word. After playing .500 ball the first 100 games, they got insanely hot and looked poised to run away with things. This month they’ve won one series, a tough one against Anaheim. They’re 5-11 this month. They can get the ship righted against Oakland, but then it’s ten very tough games. And they’re already on the outside looking in. The good news is that they control their fate, and they end the last week at home.
Toronto: 12 games remaining, all agains the Rays (6) and the Yanks (6). The bad news for them is that the Rays have the division to play for. It would have been nice for the Astros not to worry about what the Jays did, but unfortunately the last week of play has meant that a wild card is still well within the realm of outcomes. The Jays may get a break if the Orioles open up enough of a lead so that the Rays have nothing to play for over the final weekend.
Fans of losing teams won’t understand, but this season has not been as enjoyable as one might expect coming off a World Series. The team has been unpredictable, with the identity changing from one half (pitching + mediocre offense) to another (offense + mediocre pitching). The enjoyment of watching Tucker, Alvarez, Altuve, and Bregman put together elite seasons, and Chas and Yainer break out and been marred by odd managerial decisions (lineups, playing time). Likewise, the unexpected collapse of many of the pitchers has tempered some of the exuberance that the emergence of JP France might otherwise have generated. A 5-1 home stand would probably go a long way toward making the last week of the season less frightening. Go Astros.