How Astros can top Twins, make playoff run

September 29th, 2020

For the fourth year in a row, the Astros are in the postseason, though this year feels much different than the previous three. Houston won at least 100 games in each of those previous three seasons and made two trips to the World Series, winning the franchise's first title in 2017. The club was a juggernaut.

This year, the Astros battled injuries and underperformance for much of the season and now head to the postseason with 16 losses in their past 24 games, finishing the regular season with a 29-31 record. Still, the defending American League champions will be one of the most experienced playoff teams in the field and could be a tougher draw than expected.

Houston will open the playoffs by traveling to Minnesota for the best-of-three AL Wild Card Series. Let’s take a closer look at the Astros and the upcoming postseason.

How do they advance out of the Wild Card Series?
The Astros will have to do a couple things well that they generally didn’t do in the regular season -- driving in runners when they’re on base and getting solid relief pitching. Of Houston's 31 losses, 14 were by one run, and it lost 19 games in which it held the lead at some point, which indicates a lack of clutch hitting and an inability to close out games.

The Twins have power up and down their lineup, and they are extremely comfortable at Target Field, so the Astros will have to find a way to keep them in the ballpark. Despite a young pitching staff, Houston allowed only 70 homers in 60 regular-season games, the fourth fewest in the AL. The Astros may have enough pitching to hold down the Twins for three games, but Minnesota's pitching staff ranked third in the AL with a 3.58 ERA. That could be a tough matchup for a Houston offense that has sputtered in the final month of the season.

In short, the Astros will need to string hits together with men on base and hold down leads if they get them.

What does the blueprint for a championship run look like?
Considering Houston’s offensive struggles for much of this season, getting outs on the mound is going to be paramount to its success. The Astros don’t have the top two finishers in the AL Cy Young Award race at the top of their rotation like they did last year with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. But their rotation is deep enough to where they feel pretty confident about their starting pitching.

That brings us to the bullpen. Relief pitchers figure to play an even bigger role in this year’s postseason with no off-days between games in the Wild Card Series, Division Series and Championship Series. The Astros lack experienced arms in the bullpen like they had last year with Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith, Will Harris, Collin McHugh and Hector Rondón. Ryan Pressly, an All-Star setup man last year, returned and is now closing with Osuna out due to a right arm injury. Pressly has pitched well in the past month, though he blew a save Friday at Texas.

So the Astros will need some of their younger relievers to perform. That’s primarily right-handers Enoli Paredes and Josh James, who was pitching well before he went on the injured list Friday, and lefty Blake Taylor. Another lefty, Brooks Raley, has proven to be a reliable addition.

Houston will move a couple starters to the bullpen for the Wild Card Series, and that should help ease the burden. They'll be right-hander Cristian Javier, who had a terrific rookie season as a starter, and lefty Framber Valdez. The Astros relied heavily on starters in relief to close out games in their 2017 championship run -- most notably Lance McCullers Jr. to close out the ALCS and Charlie Morton in Game 7 of the World Series -- and they may need to follow that method again this year.

What is one reason for concern?
The offense. The Astros pretty much have the same players on offense they did in 2019, when they set a Major League record for slugging percentage, with the exception of '19 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Yordan Alvarez, who played in only two games in ’20 because of knee issues. Losing Alvarez, who hit 27 homers and drove in 78 runs in 87 games last year, was a significant blow, but the core of the lineup is the same: George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel.

With the exception of Brantley, those players saw drastic drop-offs in their offensive performances this year. Springer’s second-half surge has been a lift for Houston, and Kyle Tucker emerged as a solid everyday player, helping to carry the offense at times. Still, the Astros' inability to score runs in the second half of the season was baffling. Houston hit .201 with runners in scoring position in September, which was the fifth-worst mark in the Major Leagues.

The good news for the Astros is their regular-season performance won’t matter when the playoffs start, and Springer, Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel have strong track records of high-level performance in the postseason. There’s no doubt Houston will need them to get back to their 2019 form -- and in a hurry -- if it's going to advance far.