The Houston Astros defeated the Cincinnati Reds 3-2 on July 4, 1979. It was the team’s sixth straight win and it featured the Astros scoring two runs in the seventh inning to grab the lead. The game was also subjected to a bench-clearing brawl after a Reds pitcher threw at Astros starter Joaquin Andujar. As a result of the win, the Astros went up 10.5 games over the second-place Reds. Yet the Astros blew that lead and finished the season in second place, behind the Reds.
That leads to a comment made by Texas Rangers broadcaster (and former Astros radio broadcaster) Dave Raymond last week: “Two weeks ago, three weeks ago, the Astros had won the division, they were already in the World Series and they were planning the parade. It was laughable the way people were reacting in Houston. And they were talking about burying the Rangers. 'Oh, they're done. If we beat the Rangers in this series, in Houston, oh my God, they're done. They'll be like, nine games out.’”
It stings when people associated with other ball clubs mock your team. The comment is reminiscent of the Reds' Tom Seaver saying the Astros would drop through the NL West like a lead pipe after that July 4 win — which eventually did happen. And while Astros fans are upset about Raymond’s comment, they need to be reminded that there are still four months of baseball left until the playoffs.
The Astros are playing great ball right now. The team is 35-16 after Sunday’s win and has a ten-game lead over the rest of the AL West. Houston just swept the Baltimore Orioles, one of the best teams in the AL East. They also just finished a really tough stretch of the schedule by going 12-5, with the only hiccup coming from three losses to last year's AL pennant winners, the Cleveland Indians.
The star of Sunday's game was Lance McCullers, despite having one of his worst starts of the month. McCullers pitched only six innings, giving up five hits and two earned runs along with one home run. He did get eight strikeouts. Those are only “bad” numbers when considering that, in his previous three starts, he surrendered zero runs and that in a fourth start, he gave up only one earned run.
For the season, McCullers is 6-1 in 11 starts with 2.48 ERA and 73 strikeouts. Put those numbers together and it’s pretty obvious that McCullers is developing into that dependable ace every club needs. He just seems to go out each night and dominate the competition. If manager A.J. Hinch wants anything more from him, it's the ability to go deeper into games to give the bullpen some rest.
McCullers's dependability so far is even more important seeing that, during this stretch where the Astros went 12-5, the team had to deal with injuries to Dallas Keuchel and Brian McCann. Charlie Morton just got put on the disabled list. Collin McHugh has yet to pitch for the club this season and Mike Fiers has pretty much been a disaster.
So maybe Astros fans should not be planning any World Series celebrations just yet. Sure, the team has the best record in baseball. And no team in the AL West appears to be on the same competitive level. But it’s a long season, and so much can go wrong. And the Astros are able to offer up proof from their own history that big division leads, as well as deficits, can disappear.