I never saw it coming. I thought there was absolutely no way the Astros would compete for the playoffs this season. I thought maybe they might come close to an 81-81 finish for the season. There were just too many holes in the lineups, too many unknowns, too much youth.
Holy crap, was I wrong about the Houston Astros.
Heading into the Labor Day weekend, the Astros are 73-61 on the season and still in first place. There’s a month left in the season and the Astros have stood strong, withstood the absence of George Springer, overcome the awfulness of Chris Carter and Evan Gattis and Carlos Gomez — all of these players have a negative WAR. Found a way to patch together a starting lineup from game to game.
Seriously, I never, ever, never, ever saw this coming. And damn, has it been fun to watch.
Sure, there’ve been those maddening stretches when it seems that the Astros will never again score a run — this generally happens when they're on the road, as evidenced by the team’s 27-38 road record. And every now and then, it seems that the bullpen has melted down. But think about it for a minute: The Astros are in first place at 73-61.
The Astros are in first place! That feels really good to type. It feels just as fun to say it aloud. Especially if you’re saying it to Rangers fans, seeing as how those clubs have wasted big bucks on high-priced free agents who haven’t really panned out. Especially when considering that the throw-in piece of the Carlos Gomez trade has turned into one of the team’s key pitchers and tossed a thrilling no-hitter against the New York Yankees.
Who knows what this last month of the regular season will bring for the Astros. There’s still time for the team to collapse — it’s young and inexperienced with MLB playoff pressure. But then again, this team could’ve collapsed time and time again this season, and it has failed to do so. There’s been the Springer injury, the Jed Lowrie injury way earlier in the season, and Scott Feldman’s injury issues. The team’s had to overcome a black hole of negative production at first base and at catcher.
And still the Astros are in first place.
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I tend to be a negative sort, always looking for the negative side, waiting for the skies to darken with clouds of doom. I figured the Astros would start to drop around the All Star break. That the pitching would completely fall apart, that the vastly improved bullpen would return to what it was two years ago. The fear that guys like Carlos Correa, Lance McMullers and Preston Tucker would come up the majors and be more like Jon Singleton than George Springer. But it hasn't happened. The young guys for the most part have produced, have lived up to the billing.
One of my favorite all-time Astros teams is the 1992 team. That was an incredibly young group full of guys you just new would be future stars — Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Caminiti, Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, Darryl Kile, to name some. The Astros had been horrible in 1991, though some players, like Biggio and Bagwell, were beginning to assert themselves. That team didn't come too close to the playoffs, but watching them play, you saw that nucleus, saw the guys gelling, knew that in a season or two, the team would compete for the playoffs.
I thought this season’s Astros were the equivalent of that 1992 team. A team that would be better but would not compete for the playoffs. Yet a team that would be fun to watch because it would be young and we could watch the guys growing together as big-league players, getting a taste of the big-league life, positioning themselves as a team readying for playoff runs starting next year.
But wow, it’s September and the Astros are in first place. These guys have obviously established their own timeline, so I’m going to just sit back and enjoy it because it’s been a long, long time since Houston baseball fans could really enjoy watching the Astros play baseball in September. And as much fun as important September games are, I’m now greedy and I want to see the Astros playing games deep into October.