Upcoming Lone Star Series a critical point for Astros

June 30th, 2023

ST. LOUIS -- Considering the number of injuries the Astros have suffered this season, an 88-win pace at the exact midpoint of the season isn’t a cause for alarm. Of course, the expectations are much higher no matter who’s on the field for the Astros, who have won at least 100 games in four of the previous five full seasons.

The Astros, who got five RBIs from Kyle Tucker, an Alex Bregman grand slam and seven scoreless innings from rookie starter J.P. France in Thursday’s 14-0 blowout of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium, appear to have put their worst stretch of baseball -- losing 10 of 13 games earlier this month -- behind them.

Now comes their biggest series of the season -- against the first-place Texas Rangers.

The defending World Series champions have spent most of the season looking up at their in-state rivals, who lead the second-place Astros by five games. The Lone Star Series will finally have some juice in perhaps the most important series between the two clubs since 2015, beginning Friday in Arlington with the first of four games.

“Definitely, it’s a big series,” said second baseman Jose Altuve, whose 25 homers against the Rangers are his most vs. any club. “They're playing really good, they’re in first place. We’re in second, and we’re going to go out there and play hard and try to win some games. We see every series as important and big, but this one, since they are in first place, is going to be huge and really important for both teams.”

If the Astros can win at least three of four, they’ll be on the Rangers’ heels and serve notice the AL West may still go through Houston. If the Rangers have their way, that would put a big dent in Houston’s hopes for a sixth AL West title in seven years.

“They’re a good ballclub, and so are we,” Bregman said. “Let’s go and compete.”

The Astros lost three-fifths of their starting rotation to injury this year, but France has been among a group of unheralded arms to step up and keep the back of the rotation competitive. He threw his fifth consecutive quality start Thursday, lowering his ERA to 3.13 through 10 career starts, all this season.

“I just was able to locate, and it was one of those games where everything was working -- the cutter shape was really good, I could move the heater in and out like I needed to, the curveball velo was a little higher, so that was always good,” France said. “I was able to locate that thing down, and the changeup’s been solid the last couple of outings.”

Offensively, the Astros were without Altuve for the first 43 games of the season (fractured thumb) and slugger Yordan Alvarez (oblique strain) for the past 18 games. The offense broke out in St. Louis by scoring 19 unanswered runs over two games, capped by the blowout win in Thursday’s finale.

“The key is, we won the getaway day and won the series, and now we’re 3-3 on this road trip and hopefully we can win the series at Texas,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

The Astros initially scuffled offensively with Alvarez out, but they’ve scored double-digit runs in two consecutive games. A six-run second inning against Adam Wainwright set the tone for Thursday for a Houston team averaging 7.3 runs per game in its past seven games and has clubbed homers in 11 consecutive games.

On Thursday, Altuve went 1-for-2 with two walks and two runs, Bregman went 3-for-5 with a ninth-inning grand slam -- his club-record-tying seventh of his career -- and Tucker blasted a three-run homer in the sixth that traveled a Statcast-projected 447 feet and made it 9-0.

Perhaps the biggest recent development offensively is the emergence of veteran first baseman José Abreu, who has put a miserable two months behind him with a strong June (.835 OPS, 21 RBIs).

“Obviously, we’d love to have Yordan in the lineup,” Tucker said. “We put together a lot of good at-bats the past couple of days and put a lot of barrels on the ball. Hopefully we can continue to do this and continue to put up runs for the pitching staff.”