I would like to start this post by giving a round of applause to the Kansas City Royals.
The Royals played the Astros in six games during September, a month where the Astros needed to keep winning and preserve an umpteenth AL West title, and the Royals won FIVE out of those six games. The Royals are gonna finish this season with five losses, having undone a ton of the progress they made in 2022, and yet five of their 54 wins in this season came against the mighty Houston Astros.
In fact, the more you look at the Astros' 2023 track record, the more you realize how much they struggled against sub-.500 teams. They had crucial losses, and big losses at that, against teams like the A's, Padres, Tigers, Red Sox, Mets and Pirates. And then, when you look at their first half, those losses are against GOOD teams. The Mariners, Brewers, Phillies, Twins, Blue Jays and Reds all won series' against the Astros during the first half. Even during the midyear stretch when the Astros gained ground and fought back against the Rangers, there was a human element to them that wasn't there in the past. Now there were 'good' starters and 'beatable' starters; teams consistently got the best of people like Hunter Brown, J.P. France and Cristian Javier while stomaching getting shut out by Framber Valdez. And as more and more younger players took large roles in this team's success, you began to see this team lose its identity.
Which is why we can finally acknowledge the team's move to bring back Justin Verlander via trade with the Mets for what it is; an act of desperation to return the team, though still doing well, to its earlier dominance. They never used to stand a chance against us, but with Verlander back, that'll have to be the difference maker, right?
Well...Verlander's been good. 5-3 record, 3.93 ERA, 50 Ks. That's not exactly a stain on his career, especially as a 40-year-old. But the team hasn't exactly reverted to their 2022 selves. The last month has been a savage crawl to the finish, with losses to the Yankees and Royals evening things and letting the Rangers back into 1st place. The pitching might honestly be to blame, with even Valdez's ERA headed towards 4, Javier nowhere near as dominant as prior years, and several options just being too inexperienced. Verlander can only help that so much.
There are still enough elements of this Astros team that worry me for this postseason, as now they have a better hitting catcher in Yainer Diaz, a healthy and surging Jose Altuve, a younger and more compact outfield and Kyle Tucker's best season to date. I want to hope that this downhill turn is the death nell of their season, but I also know these guys always overstay their welcome. Hopefully they bow out at the right time.
It would be hilarious if the Mariners suddenly got hot and boxed them out of October entirely, even if it is unlikely. Still would make a hell of a finish.
Coming Tonight: One of the teams the Astros have to go up against before the season's out. Specifically, their closer.