'Never a fluke,' club has kept expectations high as AL Wild Card race gets crowded
By Richard Justice
Now it's about finishing the deal. The Houston Astros have come so far and surprised so many in this amazing season. So much youth and energy. Such a great ride. In the end, though, this final weekend of the regular season will define the previous six months.
Will the Astros be remembered as a team that defied every expectation in a magical run back to the postseason? Or will they be the group that hit a wall in September (11-16) and blinked when the lights were brightest?
Houston remains mathematically alive for the American League West championship, but the Astros are more realistically one of three teams fighting for the second AL Wild Card berth. At 84-75, they lead the Angels and Twins -- both 83-76 -- by one game with three to play.
On this final weekend of the regular season, the Astros have three road games against the D-backs, while the Angels will play the Rangers three more times in Arlington and the Twins will host the AL Central champion Royals.
The Royals are 92-67 and tied with the Blue Jays for the best record in the AL. So, even though Toronto holds the tiebreaker with Kansas City, the Royals still have plenty on the line. The Rangers need one more victory to clinch the AL West. If they wrap it up on Friday night, they may use their games on Saturday and Sunday to rest their veterans. Until then, the pressure will be similar to what it has been during a 37-19 drive to the postseason.
Arizona may not be playing for anything other than pride, but Houston is 11-29 on the road since July 4. The Astros arrived in Phoenix after winning two of three in Seattle to put themselves in this position.
"We think there's more out there for us," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "We embrace that challenge."
There have been times over the past few weeks when Houston's postseason goal seemed to be slipping away. The Astros spent the last of their 139 days atop the AL West on Sept. 15. If an AL Wild Card berth seemed a safe fallback position, that changed this week when the Angels moved ahead of the Astros for 24 hours. Now, despite an inconsistent offense and a leaky bullpen, the Astros can write whatever ending they're able to write.
Houston has its ace, Dallas Keuchel, going for win No. 20 on Friday. The club has won 22 of his 32 starts, but his home-road splits are worrisome. Keuchel went 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at Minute Maid Park and is 4-8 with a 3.82 ERA on the road.
But Keuchel is the guy the Astros trust the most, and they've got No. 2 starter Collin McHugh going on Saturday and probably rookie Lance McCullers lined up to pitch the final game of the regular season on Sunday.
First baseman Chris Carter and right fielder George Springer have gotten hot at the right time to energize the offense, and center fielder Carlos Gomez returned to the lineup on Wednesday and had an impact.
Because Houston won't have the designated hitter in a National League park, Hinch will have to decide how to use his DH, Evan Gattis. Does Hinch put him in left field and hope for the best? Or does he use Gattis for one at-bat off the bench in a key spot?
Had the Astros started poorly and finished with a final weekend series deciding a postseason berth, they might be thrilled to be 84-75. But they played so well early in the season that expectations changed quickly.
Besides that, they always refused to see themselves as some cute little story that would soon go away. To them, that angle played itself out back in April and May.
"Honestly, that got annoying after a while," Hinch said.
If the experts were predicting another season out of contention, that was on them.
"Our guys always believed in themselves," Hinch said. "We never saw what we were doing as a fluke."
This weekend is Houston's chance to prove just that. There's a tension and sense of expectation in these kinds of games that players remember for the rest of their lives. The Twins and Angels have played better than the Astros these past few weeks. But that doesn't matter, either. All that matters is these final three days.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.