The Houston Astros completed one of the worst stretches of baseball in a good six or seven seasons over the weekend, getting swept by the bottom-dwelling Kansas City Royals. They are 2-10 in their last 12 games with seven of those losses coming against the two worst team in the American League (KC and the Oakland A's).
That would make this a pretty awful run of bad games if not for the fact that the entire season and a possible postseason birth is on the line. It's a damn miracle (and a credit to just how insanely bad the Mariners are against the Rangers) that the Astros remain a half game up in the race for the final Wild Card spot.
They finished the season BELOW .500 in Minute Maid Park despite shattering the single season attendance record. Now, they head on the road, their apparent happy place, to play the team hot on their heels for that last spot in the postseason. What the hell happened? Let's take a look.
Starting pitching is a nightmare.
The Astros have gone from one of the best starting rotations in the game to one of its most mediocre. In the last dozen games, starters have given up 37 earned runs. Oddly, the only pitcher who has looked fairly solid in this portion of the season is Cristian Javier, who has struggled all season long. Hunter Brown looks like he is completely out of gas now that he is WELL over his career innings pitched for a season. Framber Valdez's ups and downs continue while Justin Verlander doesn't feel like the sure thing for a win or even a quality start any longer. Even J.P. France, who had been the surprise of the season, has struggled somewhat in his last few starts.
The bullpen hasn't been perfect, but certainly damn near in the last few games. And they are being overly taxed yet again because of the inability of the starters to go deep into games.
Timely hitting has been non-existent.
The face says it all as Yordan Alvarez strikes out to end Sunday's game in another loss.
Photo by Jack Gorman
In a pretty typical day on Sunday, the Astros when 1-10 with runners in scoring position. That has been a theme for them, especially at home, much of the season. And in games where the pitching does manage to hold an opponent down, hitters cannot seem to get anything going. It took a walk off single from Mauricio Dubon to keep them from being swept by the Orioles late last week. Prior to the eighth inning, the Astros had two hits and no runs. They managed to squeeze out a 2-1 win.
The entire season has felt off kilter offensively. Some of it has been injuries or playing younger guys. Most is just complete inconsistency.
The lineups remain weird.
Yainer Diaz hitting is good for the Astros. Too bad he does it so infrequently.
Photo by Jack Gorman
It has been frustrating to say the least when the lineup card comes out and almost always one or two of your best players are not playing. Whether it is Yainer Diaz continuing to scratch for playing time despite being statistically better in virtually every category than starter Martin Maldonado; or Chas McCormick, one of the best hitters on the team, not being able to get everyday at bats in the outfield; the lineup mixing and matching has been truly awkward. This doesn't even take into account the positioning of players in the lineup: moving Jeremy Peña from second to ninth and all over the place, inexplicably keeping Jose Abreau, one of the worst everyday hitters in the AL, in the top five or six hitters in the lineup.
Manager Dusty Baker's stubbornness when it comes to even considering alternatives when his team is struggling is absolutely perplexing.
The "baseball can just be that way" attitude is wearing thin.
Six errors in the last nine games to go along with swings and misses in the worst spots of games is bad. Going 1-10 with runners in scoring position and giving up four home runs in the first few innings of a game against one of the worst teams in the sport is really terrible. But, the often shrugging, "Oh, well, we'll get 'em tomorrow" attitude has been infuriating.
Baseball is tough, no doubt, but when your manager actually says that he thinks the team is "close" to breaking out offensively only to get swept the next day by the Royals, it feels like malpractice. The Astros are nearly a lock now not to win the AL West and if not for a quirk in the schedule that pits the M's and Rangers four more times, it could be argued that the Astros, who once had the easiest path to the postseason, might now have the worst odds. That still lies with the Mariners, but only if the Astros can do something about it this week in Seattle. The way they've been playing, don't bet on it.