While you were busy watching the Texans get whopped by the Patriots (again), the Houston Astros were hosting the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in a game the Astros needed to win. The Angels were pitching Ricky Nolasco, who, coming into the night, was 6-14 with a 4.78 ERA on the season.
If the Astros got the win, the team would be only a half game out of the final wild card spot. The Astros got lots of help on the night, particularly from the Boston Red Sox, who completed a four-game sweep of the Baltimore Orioles midway through the Astros game. That loss knocked the Orioles out of the final wild card spot, and an Astros win would leave the Astros and Orioles tied, just a half game behind the Detroit Tigers.
So of course the Astros lost 2-0 to the Angels, one of the worst teams in baseball this season. The Astros' playoff hopes are not dead. Not yet. But that clock is ticking, and it’s ticking loudly. There are nine games left in the season, and losing games to the Angels is something that just can’t happen when a team is fighting for a playoff spot.
In some ways, it’s kind of a miracle that the Astros are still in contention for the playoffs. The team started September by losing eight out of 13 games. Those 13 games were played against the Rangers, Indians, and Cubs. All of those teams will be going to the playoffs. All of those teams are very good. And the Astros looked really bad in those games. The starting pitching struggled, and if the team managed to take a lead into the ninth inning, the bullpen found ways to blow it, especially when playing the Rangers.
Last Wednesday, at the end of that 13-game stretch, the Astros were 3.5 games out of that final wild card spot. The Astros trailed not only the Orioles and Blue Jays, who were then the wild card teams, but also the Yankees, Mariners and Tigers. The Astros looked dead at the time, but then two things happened: They went on a winning streak, winning two of three from the Mariners to leap them in the standings, then sweeping the Oakland A’s while, at that same time, the Red Sox were beating up on the Yankees and the Orioles.
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What makes the Astros' attempted comeback even more miraculous is that the team’s had to do it with its two best pitchers, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, gone for the season, and Doug Fister getting beat up start after start. Then throw in the team's losing rookie Alex Bregman, costing the team a much-needed bat. Yet against the Mariners and the A’s, none of that seemed to matter.
In many ways, the Astros are a lot like the Texans. There’s a couple of really, really good players who could possibly be counted among the best in the game. Then there’s a whole bunch of other guys who are really just role players but are stuck playing full-time, and then there are the guys who are supposed to be great stars but who have failed to live up to the billing. So Jose Altuve might be J.J. Watt and Carlos Correa might be DeAndre Hopkins and George Springer might be Shane Lechler, but then there are all of the Colby Rasmus/Evan Gattis types who are basically nothing better than whoever the Texans pick and/or overpay to play quarterback each season.
Still, it’s not over. There are nine games to go for the 81-72 Astros. Six of those games are against the Angels and three against the Mariners. The Angels are a bad team, Mike Trout aside — and don’t forget Albert Pujols's building a Hall of Fame résumé out of his games against the Astros. But the Angels games should be won easily, and have to be won for the Astros to make the playoffs, no matter how badly the Orioles might now be in free fall.
The Grim Reaper’s knocking on the door to the Astros clubhouse. So far he’s not been able to gain entry. But time’s quickly running out in the 2016 season.