For the first since 2008, the Houston Astros are a legitimate playoff contender and see themselves playing relevant September baseball. Refreshing, isn’t it? Entering today, the Astros lead the Rangers by 2 games and the Angels by 5.5 games. While the Astros have been almost unbeatable at home (48-24), they have been struggling on the road (27-39). The Astros embarked on a 10 game road Monday against 3 of their AL West counterparts. Starting yesterday, the Astros are slated to face the Athletics for 3 games, the Angels for 3 games and the Rangers for 4 games.
I can’t underestimate how enormous this roundtrip is from a playoff positioning perspective. If the Astros could win all 3 series against their division rivals, it would give them the much needed cushion they need entering the stretch run. By losing these games, it is a real possibility that the Astros could return home in 3rd place if they continue to struggle away from home. They have been in 1st place all but 8 days since April 19th and the pressure is on them to stay there, especially in finishing the road trip with 4 games in Arlington, and the Rangers showing no signs of letting up.
Although performance has been poor on the road all year, the team is in good shape on paper entering this 10 game test. While Jason Castro remains on the DL with his quadriceps injury, he should be making his return to the lineup at some point during the road trip. George Springer has returned and has been a welcome boost to the offense and the starting rotation continues to pitch well. The bullpen has also been very good. But recently, the bullpen, who was ranked second in the American League entering Monday, has struggled. Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson, the 2 high profile arms signed in the off season have, for the most part, been as good as advertised. However, both have had their struggles in key moments.
Neshek, who has been prone to the long ball this year, suffered 2 consecutive losses last week and Gregerson, while earning a save on Sunday, took the loss on Saturday. Josh Fields, who has pitched well all year, has struggled mightily since his return from AA and said struggles were never more evident then they were yesterday. Fields came in with 2 on and none out in the 6th and gave up 6 runs (2 of which were credited to starter, Mike Fiers) on 4 hits and a walk in just 1/3 of an inning. The bullpen needs to get its act together on this all important road trip as the Astros need that unit to be the strong back end anchor as it has been all year.
Tonight, Scott Kazmir faces his former team, and their ace, Sonny Gray as the Astros try to reverse their fortunes away from Minute Maid Park. After dropping Monday’s game, the Astros need to somehow find a way to win today (no small feat with Gray on the mound) and string together some quality road wins. A winning road trip against their division rivals would be absolutely titanic in regards to divisional and playoff positioning. Stay tuned, folks. It’s going to be a fun ride! Until next week, Astros fans. Stay classy!