Astros Clinch the AL West (Finally): Four Thoughts

Lance McCullers had a whale of a season.
Lance McCullers had a whale of a season. Photo by Jack Gorman
It felt like forever. It probably should have happened last. Regardless, the Astros managed to clinch their division on Thursday night with a win over the Tampa Bay Rays 3-2. The win takes them to 93-66 with only three games remaining all at Minute Maid Park against the recently eliminated Oakland A's.

By clinching today, the Astros set themselves up to rest a few players and organize their rotation before the postseason begins next week. The way it happened probably left a few fans nervous as the season was drawing to a close. But, a three-run homer by Carlos Correa along with a terrific pitching performance by Lance McCullers gave the Astros everything they needed to get back to the playoffs.

Speaking of Lance McCullers...

McCullers finished his season with a more than 162 innings pitched and a 3.17 ERA, second best in the American League. This was clearly the best season of his young career after signing a new multi-year contract. Prior to this year, he had not made it through a full season healthy, so just pitching that many innings was huge for the righty. But, adding a low ERA and the emotion he brings to the mound every night was an absolute asset for a team that ended the year with great pitching, but not exactly from the pitchers everyone expected, and that includes McCullers.

Center field is up for grabs for the postseason.

It was a given that center field would be a massive question mark going into the first season without George Springer in years. The season began with Myles Straw, but wound up platooning several youngsters in the middle of the outfield. Chas McCormick is the most recognizable face, but both Jose Siri and Jake Meyers, who manned the outfield Tuesday for the clincher, have had significant flashes over the last month-plus. Siri, in particular, an older "rookie," seems comfortable under the big lights with a flair for the dramatic. Who will be the regular and who will actually make the playoff roster is still up in the air.

No one wants them to be, but the Astros are the favorites in the AL.

The first full year after COVID has allowed fans across baseball to voice their displeasure with the Astros after the sign-stealing scandal from 2017 when they won the World Series. Inflatable trash cans were a thing at ballparks across the major leagues. But, it only seemed to make the Astros more united and, oddly enough, this team has a lot of similarities to that 2017 team. Surely making no one happy outside of Houston, Las Vegas has the Astros as the odd-on favorites to represent the American League in the championship. And if you don't think a World Series matchup with the Dodgers, whose fans (and some players) think they were cheated out of a title, wouldn't be an absolute barn burner, you don't love baseball.

Once again, they were a dominant offense, but their defense...

The Astros lead the major leagues in many offensive categories, but they also happen to be at the top of baseball in defense. They are particularly great on the infield and behind the plate, where they are willing to sacrifice some offense for Martin Maldonado's outstanding ability to pick off runners at second. The strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play in the eighth was the exact kind of play he's been making all season long behind the dish. They might deliver fireworks at the plate, but they also hold teams down, particularly behind it.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke