Sean Pendergast

Five Houston Astros Midseason Superlatives

Ronel Blanco has been the Astros' Most Valuable Player for the first half of the MLB season.
Ronel Blanco has been the Astros' Most Valuable Player for the first half of the MLB season. Photo by Jack Gorman
It's been a really long time since Houston Astros fans have had to endure a season like the team has been having in 2024. A 7-19 start begat a 12-24 start, and just a week or so ago, after a 2-0 shutout loss to the woeful Chicago White Sox, the team seemed to have bottomed out at 33-40 and 10 games behind the Seattle Mariners for the AL West lead.

Wow, though, what a difference a week can make! Since that loss to the White Sox, the Astros have not lost a game, winning seven in a row, and outscoring their opponents by a cumulative margin of 48-20. The Mariners, meanwhile, have been reeling, and the Astros have picked up a whopping 5.5 games in the standings, siting just 4.5 back of Seattle, and 3.5 back in the AL wild card race.

In short, what looked to be a summer of frustration and discontent, now all of a sudden has Astros fans screaming "We're back, baby!" There is still work to do, but at 40-40, we are essentially at the midway point of the season (one game short of it), so on a Friday after an off day, why not hand out a few superlatives for the season, thus far?

Here we go...

Most Valuable Player: RONEL BLANCO, SP
It's been a fascinating first half for Blanco, whose current fledgling career as a starting pitcher can be traced back to a suggestion by GM Dana Brown to prepare him for this season as a starter. That decision has paid off in a performance that should be All Star Game worthy. (More on that in a moment.) Blanco began the season with a bang, tossing a complete game, no hitter against the Blue Jays in the home opener, and to this point, he is 8-2 with a 2.34 ERA that is the 6th best in baseball. Along the way, he endured a 10 game suspension for a sticky substance in his glove in a start back in May, but he's come through that bit of adversity with flying colors. No telling where the Astros would be right now without Blanco. The team is 11-3 in his 14 starts.

Biggest disappointment: JUSTIN VERLANDER, SP
To be fair, there are plenty of candidates for this spot, what with Jose Abreu's mere existence dragging the team down for the first three months of the season. Also, Alex Bregman, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader, among others, got off to bad starts, not to mention season ending injuries to Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. So Verlander is not alone. However, when he's actually pitched this season, his ERA has been near 4.00, and right now he is nursing his second IL-worthy injury of the season, a neck injury that has rendered him unable to throw for several days, with no end in sight. This is what happens at the age of 41, I suppose.

Turning point: Nine run 6th inning against ORIOLES on June 21
The launch point for this run that the Astros are currently on, seven wins a row, was really the 6th inning of the opener against the Orioles last Friday, in which they turned a 5-3 lead into a 14-3 lead, and did so with exactly zero home runs. They hit five doubles in the inning, including two from rookie outfielder Joey Loperfido, and since that game, they've outscored their opponents by a 25-5 margin. That 14-11 win in that game was the opening salvo in the best series of the season, a sweep of a very good Orioles team.

If the voting holds up in the fan balloting, in which the run-offs are next week, Altuve, Alvarez, and Tucker all should start, and all three deserve to start. Altuve has his average over .300 again, Alvarez has rediscovered his power stroke and has an OPS near .900, and Tucker was an MVP candidate before fouling a ball off his shin on June 3. As stated earlier, Blanco deserves to be selected to the All Star Game, but the American League is stacked with good starting pitchers.

Most significant second half storyline: The return of LUIS GARCIA and LANCE McCULLERS
The Astros are paper thin right now in the starting rotation, with only four healthy, experienced starters, and honestly using "experienced" to describe Blanco and Spencer Arrighetti is a bit of a reach. The Astros have had a ton of off days in the recent part of the schedule, so they've been able to muck their way through it, but soon, the schedule will be far less forgiving. So the Astros will be forced to make some decisions on trades or minor league call-ups. Meanwhile, Garcia and McCullers are getting closer and closer to returning. Garcia, in fact, pitches at their rookie complex this weekend. How this team handles the back end of the rotation in the next couple weeks may tell us quite a bit about how confident they are in Garcia and McCullers returning at or near full strength.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast