HOUSTON -- The Astros are back in the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, slugging their way through the summer to their fourth AL West title in five seasons.
After stumbling to a 29-31 record in last year’s COVID-shortened season and then roaring their way into the club's fourth consecutive ALCS, the Astros got bounce-back years offensively from core players Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel and breakout performances from outfielder Kyle Tucker and rookie starter Luis Garcia.
The Astros still have six remaining players (not including the injured Justin Verlander) from their 2017 championship team -- Altuve, Correa, Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers Jr. and Marwin Gonzalez -- and their status as one of the heavyweights in the AL doesn’t appear to be waning.
How they were built:
Amateur draft: RHP Brandon Bielak, 2B Alex Bregman, SS Carlos Correa, INF Taylor Jones, OF Chas McCormick, RHP Lance McCullers Jr., OF Jake Meyers, C Garrett Stubbs, OF Kyle Tucker
International signings: 2B Jose Altuve, RHP Luis Garcia, 1B Yuli Gurriel, RHP Cristian Javier, RHP José Urquidy, LHP Framber Valdez
Free agents: OF Michael Brantley, C Jason Castro, C Martín Maldonado, RHP Jake Odorizzi, OF Jose Siri, RHP Ryne Stanek
Trades: DH Yordan Alvarez, INF Aledmys Díaz, INF Marwin Gonzalez, RHP Yimi Garcia, RHP Kendall Graveman, RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Phil Maton, RHP Ryan Pressly, LHP Brooks Raley, LHP Blake Taylor
The Astros made a move in the winter to bolster their bullpen by signing veteran relievers Pedro Báez and Ryne Stanek. Báez battled COVID-19 and injuries and pitched in only four games before another shoulder injury sidelined him; Stanek was a valuable late-inning arm. Still, the bullpen remained an issue into the season, which is why the Astros pulled off three trades to acquire four relievers in July, including Kendall Graveman from the Mariners and Yimi García from the Marlins.
The loss of George Springer to free agency left a gaping hole atop the Astros lineup, and manager Dusty Baker spent much of the spring trying to decide who was going to replace him. Baker toyed with the idea of Myles Straw (who was traded in July) and Correa (touting his power potential) before eventually putting Altuve in the leadoff spot. It worked. Altuve, who had hit leadoff for stretches before Springer replaced him on May 24, 2015, had his ups and downs offensively, but has produced at the top of the order slashing .280/.354/.489 through the team’s first 135 games.
Defining season stretch:
Houston won a season-high 11 games in a row from June 13-24, taking control of the AL West in the process. The Astros trailed the A's by two games in the division when they started the winning streak, and had built a two-game lead when the streak ended with a loss to the Tigers on June 26. Houston averaged 8.5 runs per game during the streak and bashed 23 homers. Its pitching staff posted a 1.80 ERA with eight quality starts in 11 games. “We’re not quite the Big Red Machine, but maybe we’re the Orange Wagon or something,” Baker proclaimed.
Called up at the Trade Deadline after the Astros dealt Straw to the Indians, Jake Meyers was slated to be the club’s fourth outfielder, with Chas McCormick taking over as the starter in center. When Tucker went on the IL with COVID-19, McCormick started in right and Meyers took over in center and was tremendous. His combination of speed, defense and occasional power proved him to be an upgrade at the position over what Straw had provided in the first four months.
The Astros began the season by scoring 51 runs in their first seven games, which served notice to the rest of the league that their offense was going to be just fine without Springer. While they had their ups and downs and lots of injuries, the Astros have led the Major Leagues in runs scored for most of the season, with Altuve, Bregman, Correa, Gurriel, Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley and Tucker highlighting a deep lineup. The Astros lead the AL in fewest runs allowed with a solid rotation that lacks star power beyond McCullers and an aging Zack Greinke. They can close out games with Graveman and All-Star Ryan Pressly at the back of the bullpen. What’s more, the Astros play elite defense and lead the AL in defensive runs saved.
Down 7-2 to the Yankees in the ninth inning on July 11, the Astros posted their first win when trailing by five or more runs in the ninth inning since July 25, 1980 (and the first ending on a walk-off hit since July 24, 1978). Altuve's walk-off homer -- his 20th of the season -- off Chad Green completed the rally and gave Houston a stunning 8-7 win over the Yanks in the final game before the All-Star break. It was the second time Altuve hit a dramatic homer against Green. His three-run, go-ahead homer in the eighth inning on May 6 at Yankee Stadium avoided a sweep and sparked the Astros to a 40-22 surge into the All-Star break.
"Everybody thought we were going to lose this game, except for us," Altuve said.