Seattle will not go away. As the Astros entered their softest part of the schedule a month ago a game behind the Mariners in the American League West, most believed things would change. After all, Seattle was on pace to win a record number of one-run games and had lost their best offensive player to a year-long suspension.
Yet, here we are in early July and the Mariners (as of Tuesday) were just a half game back of the Astros with an 8-2 record in their last 10 games.
Some of this goes to schedule. The Astros stretched that lead to nearly four games a couple weeks ago when the Mariners were going through a gauntlet of games that included the Red Sox and Yankees. They only managed to go 3-7 in that stretch. And in games against bad teams, just as the Astros are doing, they are feasting.
But, there is one big difference between these teams: run differential. The Astros are an astounding plus-170 while the Mariners are only plus-22. At some point, one would think the one-run games would catch up to them and it might, but it didn't catch up with the Rangers in 2016, who won their division that year while going 36-11 in one-run games. Currently, Seattle is 26-11 and it's only July 3.
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Whether the Mariners can keep that amazing streak going or not, the Astros should plan for a dogfight. Last September, the only reason the Astros had to play was to watch Justin Verlander and figure out how many games they would win that season. This September could be markedly different, and it has an impact.
Resting players as the end of the season draws to a close is debated in most sports leagues. Weighing rust and rest is something the Rockets had to do this past season. This fall, the Astros might not get a choice and that seems fine.
This is a team that, despite a rather ho-hum feeling around town about their play (and some worried calls to sports radio about their hitting), is still one of the best teams in baseball. Only the Red Sox have a better record and no one has a better starting pitching staff. They lead the league in run differential, are third in batting average and second in hits. They lead the majors in ERA and are second in innings pitched. In short, this team is, in some respects, better than last year.
But these are the dog days of summer. Things don't really start to heat up until August. For the Astros, it doesn't appear they will have the division sewn up early like they did last season. They will need to fight for their crown, but the safe money is on the hometown team.