For the fourth straight season, the Houston Astros will be part of baseball's postseason, but to say that this one feels different than the previous three is like saying a box lunch feels different than your three favorite high end steakhouses. In 2017, the Astros went into the postseason with great hope and a newly acquired Justin Verlander. In 2018, they went into the postseason with experience from the previous year and, again, great hope, even if they were a little banged up. In 2019, they had Velrander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke, and that felt really good.
In 2020, on the other hand, they are the first ever sub-.500 team to back into the postseason, allowed in the dance only because baseball changed its rules to allow over half the teams in the game to partake in the postseason in the COVID-shortened 60-game season. In fact, the Astros actually clinched their playoff spot on Friday night in the most "2020 Astros" way possible — by coughing up a lead with two outs in the ninth, and again in the tenth, in a potential playoff-clinching game to the Rangers, and then watching the Dodgers do their dirty work for them by beating the Angels and knocking the Angels out of the postseason race.
Indeed, this celebratory picture tweeted out by the Astros felt a little empty. Accurate, but empty....
Still, with a football team in town that's 0-3, who am I to quibble over how or why our baseball team is celebrating a playoff berth, right? So, as we embark on this year's postseason journey, this time starting with a best-of-three wild card round in Minnesota against the 3-seed Twins, here are a few thoughts on this Astros postseason...
Was Friday's 12-run outburst on offense a sign of things to come or one final reminder of the window closing?
Since Justin Verlander went down with his arm injury in the first weekend of the shortened season, it's been commonly thought that the Astros would go as far as their bats would take them. They then proceeded to have their worst hitting season since 2013, which I guess proves the conventional wisdom to be true, considering they finished 29-31 for the season. Most of the Astros regulars had their worst hitting seasons of this championship window, Jose Altuve chief among them, as his final batting average for the year was .219. However, they did have a 12 run outburst last Friday in which George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Altuve all had three hits. Hopefully, it's a sign that, somewhere in there, the old, title-contending Astros offense still exists.
Will the Astros best pitcher for the last two weeks not even pitch in this series?
Back in the first week in September, Lance McCullers was placed on the injured list with a nerve issue in his neck. Since returning from that stint on the IL, McCullers pitched 17.2 innings, and gave up exactly ZERO earned runs. He struck out 24 while walking only 4 batters. Yet, he is scheduled to pitch Game 3 of this round right now, which is great if there happens to actually BE a Game 3, but it also means there's a chance that the Astros' best pitcher over the last couple weeks may not throw a pitch in this round. Meanwhile, Zack Greinke, who is paid to be the Astros' ace starter, has a 6.53 ERA over his last four starts, and has not given up under three earned runs in an outing since August 18. He will start Game 1.
Will there be a "Dusty Moment" in this series?
You might argue that slotting McCullers into Game 3 qualifies as a "Dusty Moment" before the series even starts, but I digress. Baker had periodic issues managing the bullpen, and putting the lineup together. The condensed nature of this postseason, with fewer off days than a normal postseason, probably won't help much. Hey, look, even A.J. Hinch had a rough moment in Game 7 of the World Series, mismanaging a late inning lead into a Game 7 loss. Dusty Baker makes me very nervous.
What happens if they bow out quietly?
This, to me, is the most important question surrounding this postseason (unless, of course, the Astros make an unexpected run to, say, the ALCS or the World Series). If the Astros are done by the end of this week, what's the evaluation like this offseason? Verlander's Tommy John surgery, which has already preemptively erased his 2021 season, may change the calculus on how Jim Crane views this title window. What if George Springer leaves in free agency in a couple months? A big part of this team's soul goes with him. Could the combination of no Verlander and no Springer then make it more sensible to begin some sort of version of a rebuild? Would it make sense to move Carlos Correa before HE leaves in free agency after 2021? Sadly, the Astros offseason carries far more intrigue than anything taking place on the field for them this postseason.
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