Now the challenge for the Astros may be maintaining their edge. Expectations are part of that, too. How does a team focus on winning one game at a time when every question is about the postseason?Which, incidentally, is still 103 games away after the Astros had their 11-game winning streak
Now the challenge for the Astros may be maintaining their edge. Expectations are part of that, too. How does a team focus on winning one game at a time when every question is about the postseason?
Which, incidentally, is still 103 games away after the Astros had their 11-game winning streak abruptly ended by the Royals, 9-7, on Tuesday night.
So for at least a day or two, the Astros won't have to answer questions about possibly being the winningest team of the modern era. At 42-17, they're on a pace to win 115 games. (The 2001 Mariners went 116-46 to set the American League record and tie the Major League record by the 1906 Cubs.)
To get back on track for the final two games of the series in Kansas City, Houston has its two best starting pitchers, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, scheduled to start. They're a combined 15-1 this season.
Amid a surreal start, manager A.J. Hinch has done some thinking about how expectations have changed for his team -- and about maintaining an edge with a huge division lead (13 games in the AL West).
The Astros got a reminder on Tuesday that things can change quickly. They led the Royals, 7-1, midway through the fourth inning, but their bullpen -- one of baseball's best -- gave that lead back. Kansas City third baseman Mike Moustakas ended things in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run home run off Houston closer Ken Giles.
Hinch's answer to all of this is simple: He loved his team in March. He loved its energy and focus. Hinch loved the clubhouse blend of youth and experience. He believes his guys can shut out the noise and simply go do the thing they're doing about as well as any team ever has at this point, and that is play baseball and compete. They do not play to set records. They play because they love showing up to the park each day and putting on the uniform.
The very thing is that makes the Astros such a joy to watch may be the thing that allows them to play the final 103 games pretty much the same way they've played the first 59.
"I think our vibe and our personality has always been pretty positive and upbeat, and our preparedness has always been really strong," Hinch said before Tuesday's game. "I think some of that preceded this success that we had, and then on top of it, who doesn't like to come to the ballpark when you feel you have a chance to win?
"There's an expectation and a standard set that we expect to win every night. We've done that a lot, and as much as it's about any singular game, we're still talking a lot about winning series, having winning homestands, having winning road trips. That seems to have caught on, and the success we've had has built for more success."
There's also the team-within-the-team aspect. That is, players do compete with other players. That's sometimes most evident on a pitching staff, where one starter wants to top what the previous starter does. Relievers are precisely the same way.
In that way, teams continue to compete regardless of the standings. And the Astros have enough players with postseason experience to understand that October baseball is a completely different animal -- and that October won't matter if Houston doesn't take care of its business in the summer months.
"We got swept by the Indians [May 19-21]," Hinch said. "There's a reality check. If you don't respect the game or respect the opponent, if you think this is easy or you think a pace is all of a sudden going to guarantee you anything, the game will remind you it's not that way at this level."
That said, Hinch does want his players to enjoy the ride and not to get caught up in the noise outside the clubhouse. None of these players is likely to have a stretch like this.
If you can't enjoy 42-17, why bother showing up for work?
"The one thing I've done is remind our players to enjoy what's going on and enjoy how we're playing in reminding why the success we're having is a byproduct of how we're going about it," Hinch said. "It's been our preparation, it's been our enthusiasm, it's been our focus, it's been teammate on teammate.
"We have guys that are helping each other in the dugout or behind the scenes, and that's created the wins we've been able to achieve. As far as the pace, enjoying it is one thing. Putting it in perspective how unique this team has been up to this point, I think, it's important for our players to enjoy. It doesn't really count for the next 90-100 games that we have in order to get to the finish line."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.