Here's a topic baseball's best team would prefer to avoid: The Astros are on pace to win 117 games, which would break the modern record of 116, set by the 2001 Mariners.And there's your cautionary tale, even as the Astros beat the Royals, 7-3, on Monday night to extend their
Here's a topic baseball's best team would prefer to avoid: The Astros are on pace to win 117 games, which would break the modern record of 116, set by the 2001 Mariners.
And there's your cautionary tale, even as the Astros beat the Royals, 7-3, on Monday night to extend their winning streak to 11 games. This is the kind of season it has been: Houston had baseball's best record (31-16) and largest division lead (seven games) before winning 11 in a row.
Now about those 2001 Mariners. They sailed through the regular season, then eliminated the Indians in an American League Division Series. That's where the magic ended, with the Yankees making quick work of the M's in a five-game AL Championship Series.
This emphasizes what you already know about baseball: Nothing is guaranteed. And postseason baseball is a different animal. It's an inning-by-inning grind in which a season seems to be riding on every pitch. It's about clutch hitting and bullpens and poise.
On the other hand, the Astros are an amazing machine at the moment. When this winning streak began on May 25, Houston appeared to be as good and as entertaining as any team on the planet.
Maybe the Astros could win their first division championship since 2001. Maybe, just maybe, they could win a postseason series for the first time since 2005, when they reached the World Series.
Now it's reasonable to look at Houston and wonder if this will finally be the season the fans celebrate a championship in Texas. That's what 42-16 -- and a +106 run differential -- gets you.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch would like to interject an important point, though: It's way, way, way too early for this stuff. Houston has clinched nothing. There are 104 games left in the regular season, and who knows what all will happen?
But we can still be impressed. These Astros play with joy and energy. They're talented, too. And they're rolling. Houston has trailed in just 10 of 99 innings during the winning streak and outscored the opposition 89-39.
The Astros are hitting .323 during the winning streak and have homered 28 -- count 'em, 28 -- times in 11 games. Houston's 89 runs is 26 more than the next-closest team (Detroit).
So just for today, let's look down the road and consider this team in an October context. Could success now translate into success then? Here are 10 reasons it just might:
1. There's some margin for error
The Astros have won 10 more games than any other AL team. Their run differential is 22 runs more than the next team in all of baseball (the Dodgers are second). Houston has a whopping 14-game lead in the AL West. Even with four months to play, Hinch can afford to play the schedule a bit. That means not overworking the top of the rotation or the back of the bullpen. Doing that without losing a competitive edge, though, is the key.
2. Dominant starting pitching
That's the foundation for postseason success, and the Astros have two of the best in Dallas Keuchel (9-0, 1.67 ERA) and Lance McCullers (6-1, 2.71). Houston is 20-3 in their starts.
3. Impact offensive players
In George Springer, Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, the Astros have three players who could all land in the top 10 of AL Most Valuable Player Award voting. Here's what the three of them are hitting during the winning streak: .435 (Altuve), .426 (Correa) and .412 (Springer). Correa was the AL Player of the Month for May. Springer was the AL Player of the Week for the opening week of June. Depth is critical, and Houston has lots of it. But the team's three core guys have been at their best so far this season.
4. Bullpen built for October
This group is starting to have a Cleveland feel, with a reliable closer, Ken Giles, and star-caliber setup men in Will Harris, Chris Devenski and Michael Feliz. During the winning streak, they've combined to allow two earned runs in 19 innings. Right-hander James Hoyt and rookie left-hander Reymin Guduan have emerged as potentially important October contributors during the winning streak.
It's one thing to be a really, really good team, which the Astros are. It's something else to be a really, really entertaining team, which they also are. That comes from the energy that Altuve, Springer, Correa and others bring to the ballpark every day. Hinch believes the standings will not impact the way they play, because the Astros play this way because they love the competition and feed off one another's enthusiasm. In a long season, loving your job is important.
General manager Jeff Luhnow went for the finishing touch to a very good roster last offseason when he added veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Norichika Aoki and Charlie Morton. They're all still productive players, but having been around the block a time or two, their approach and composure are important examples for the young players.
7. Aggressive general manager, deep farm system
Luhnow is in a go-for-it mode as he attempts to strengthen his team, most likely with the pursuit of a starting pitcher. Oakland's Sonny Gray and Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole could top his shopping list, and he has the depth in his farm system to make such a deal.
8. Hinch and his staff
Hinch has been a perfect fit for a young team that needed his wisdom, humor and communication skills. He's 212-170 in three seasons on the job, and he has developed the kind of relationships in both the clubhouse and front office that can endure tough times. Hinch's staff has a comfortable relationship with a data-driven front office.
The Astros have come from behind to win 21 times. Houston has rallied from five-run deficits three times and one six-run deficit in the eighth inning on Memorial Day. The Astros are 22-6 on the road and have won 11 straight there, too. They're 16-7 in games decided by one or two runs.
10. Lightning in a bottle
Sometimes, the pieces just fit. It's about talent, but it's about a sprinkling of magic, too. Players and managers talk about it for years. They don't know how it happens or why it goes away. They just know when they have it. Right now, the Astros have it. If they get to October, they'll have a home-field advantage as good as any. Minute Maid Park was a roaring delight during the 2004-05 playoff runs and almost certainly will be that again.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.