As we cross into the second half of August and watch September approach, the playoff teams are beginning to crystallize. While no division race is truly over until the end of the season (see 2011 Boston Red Sox, 2014 Milwaukee Brewers) the NL West and Central, led by the Dodgers and Cardinals, are looking settled. Same for the AL Central where the Royals have gone from Cinderella to returning champ. The Astros are hanging onto the AL West at the moment, but haven’t put away the Angels just yet.
Both leagues are tough in the East: the Yankees hold a two game lead over the Blue Jays in the AL while the Mets have three-and-a-half games on the Nationals in the NL. The demise of the Washington Nationals would be a bigger story had the Mariners, Tigers, Red Sox, and Padres not under-performed spectacularly this season. At this point failure of a favorite is almost expected.
Can the Blue Jays put another charge together in the AL East? Their next nine games are split evenly among the Angels, Rangers, and Tigersa��those first six on the road. Losing two-out-of-three last weekend to the Yankees was costly and put the Jays back in the wild card race. But enough about the Jays.
We Have Liftoff
The Houston Astros lost to the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series. They finished second in the NL Central the following year with a record of 82-80. They would finish above .500 just once more, 2008, until 2015. When the Astros were last in the playoffs, Dane Cook’s October commercials were still two years away. Dane Cook was still a relevant social figure. Twitter hadn’t launched yet and Facebook was still primarily used by college kids. Anyone with a computer communicated on AIM.
When the Astros had a scandal just over a year ago about their Ground Control database, things looked grim. Would ownership pull the plug on the Great Experiment that yielded three last place finishes? No, they didn’t change horses in midstream. And thank goodness they didn’t, because the proverbial corner was about to be turned.
2015’s Astros have been more than many expected. Entering play on August 20, the Astros sat at 66-55, already a higher win total than in 2011, 2012, or 2013 and just four wins shy of their 2014 total. Houston is leading an Angels team with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols.
Bagwell, Biggio, and Berkman are gone but the new Astros have Jose Altuve, Preston Tucker, and Carlos Correa. At just 25, Altuve is already in his fifth year in the majors, has a batting title under his belt, and has led the league in steals each of the last two seasons. Tucker? With 12 home runs in his first 78 games, he’s chipping in with some power of his own. Correa, called up to replace an injured Jed Lowrie, is hitting .286/.356/.539 with 16 doubles, 15 homers, and 10 stolen bases while doing his best A-Rod impersonation as a rookie shortstop. No one could ask for a better debut. Even Mike Trout struggled in his first call-up. But Correa is leading the team towards the postseason.
Or that’s what you might believe while looking at the standings. The Astros got off to a great start in April: 15-7, followed by a good-enough May: 16-13, and then a combined 35-35 through June, July, and August. Knowing that his team wasn’t guaranteed anything as they reached the trade deadline, GM Jeff Luhnow spent some trade chips and acquired Scott Kazmir, Carlos Gomez, and Mike Fiers. Kazmir and Fiers join staff ace Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, and rookie Lance McCullers in the rotation while Gomez gives the club a true center fielder for this year and 2016.
This weekend the Astros face the Dodgers while the Angels draw the Blue Jays, so neither team is in a great position to pick up grounda��which could extend the AL West race another week, and impacts that other division that could be up for grabs.
This isn’t last year’s Astros team and it may not be next year’s either, but the front office had one goal in mind: championships, and now that the team is playing as a contender, it will have the pieces to stay competitive and improve. If any fanbase deserved a surprise jump into contention and a stellar rookie debut, it was this one.