[Houston Chronicle] Deep breaths, people: The Astros could still screw this up

Discussion in 'Houston Astros' started by samtaylor, Jun 6, 2017.

  1. J.R.

    J.R. Contributing Member

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    Only time will tell if Astros can fulfill season's early promise

    Before the second-best team in baseball fell backward again Friday in Arlington, the Astros sent out their standard pregame media notes.

    An overwhelming collection of highly offensive statistics rested at the end of the email: The Astros' offense leads the majors in runs (664), hits (1,160), doubles (251), homers (186), batting average (.290), on-base percentage (.353), slugging percentage (.509) and OPS (.853).

    Admit it: You thought it was going to be a list of highly negative stuff.

    Like going 11-15 since the All-Star break. Or being swept by the rebuilding Chicago White Sox, aka the worst team in the American League. Or allowing the surging Boston Red Sox to pull within just six games of the best overall mark in the American League with 46 contests to go.

    "Deep down we were all down in the dumps, because we had a pretty good shot to help this team get over the hump," veteran outfielder Josh Reddick said last week on MLB Network radio, echoing Dallas Keuchel's post-trade deadline "disappointment."

    The plunging Astros were down in the dumps the last two weeks? Really? We had no idea.

    Inevitable slump

    This was bound to happen at some point. They're not the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers. They weren't supposed to be one of the best teams in baseball history in the spring, and all the gaudy stats that kept coming out in May and June always felt a little too good to be true.

    But you don't own the second-best run differential (plus-158) on Aug. 12 without constantly overpowering the opposition.

    And there's no doubt that from opening day until the All-Star break, this clearly had the makings of one of Houston's strongest teams since 1962.

    So what has gone so wrong? And is this a brief summer swoon or the beginning of the end for something that felt so grand not that long ago?

    As I wrote the day of the July 31 trade deadline, we'll see for the latter.

    The Astros did themselves no favors as August approached, and now will have to prove themselves through the World Series to erase the impression that they really didn't want to win the city's first baseball championship in 2017.

    But for all the drama of the recent fall - respected veterans speaking out on the record; the team publicly insisting that it tried to improve itself, while voices around the franchise questioned why there was no clear Plan B - the reasons for the Astros' slide stretch much further than the often overhyped trade deadline.

    To elaborate …

    Injuries.

    For the initial two months of 2017, the Astros were the best team in baseball and relatively injury-free.

    When someone briefly went down (Brian McCann, Jake Marisnick, Keuchel), someone immediately stepped into an increased role (Marwin Gonzalez, Evan Gattis, Brad Peacock).

    The deepest lineup in baseball and a back end of the rotation that was stronger than initially expected covered up for any missing names.

    By June, though, the Astros' starting arms began to weaken, which ultimately wore down the bullpen.

    Keuchel's last ace-like start was way back on June 2. No. 2 starter Lance McCullers Jr. hasn't been right since June 24 and remains on the disabled list. In July, the club's team ERA reached 5.08, which was 1.70 higher than its April season low of 3.38.

    Carlos Correa's MVP-caliber season was then paused July 18 and George Springer - who just returned from the DL - was sidelined July 25.

    Manager A.J. Hinch has used 100 batting orders in 115 games, with untested Derek Fisher, J.D. Davis and Tyler White filling out the August holes.

    "I want to get our team back," Hinch said last week.

    For all the complexities of the Astros' monthlong fall, this simply isn't the same team that was destroying MLB in April and May.

    Reason No. 2

    Pitching.

    This part is obviously more complicated. It's also a question mark that dates back more than a year and will shadow the Astros through the playoffs until they answer it.

    An improved bullpen aided the team's first playoff season in a decade in 2015. But that pen crumbled in the postseason (Game 4 of the American League Division Series, 6-2 Astros in the seventh becoming 9-6 Royals after nine) and the offseason trade for closer Ken Giles was orchestrated to cement the relief corps.

    Keuchel and McCullers were then unreliable in 2016. The Astros entered last season's trade deadline knowing their rotation wasn't strong enough to win a postseason series, and they entered this spring knowing their year could come down to the health of their Nos. 1 and 2 starters.

    Charlie Morton (9-5, 3.83 ERA) has become last year's Doug Fister. Peacock (10-1, 3.07 ERA) has become the most underrated arm on the 2017 staff.

    And when Keuchel and McCullers were roaring at the start of 2017, their dominance covered up the absence of No. 3 starter Collin McHugh and had the Astros truly looking like the best team in baseball.

    Then Keuchel and McCullers went down again. Then a depleted starting staff began cutting into the efficiency of an overused bullpen.

    And then we spent June and July awash in trade rumors, with everyone in baseball knowing the Astros needed relief reinforcement and another top-three starter, especially if the team's best two arms were to remain off target.

    Not the same team

    Now everyone's imagining Justin Verlander in Astros orange and wondering when the American League's best team is going to start playing good baseball again.

    Why did it feel like the trade deadline hurt so bad?

    Because the Astros - Keuchel, Reddick, the front office, everyone - knew exactly what this team needed for a long time and the club whiffed at a pitch long in the making.

    How does a World Series contender lose 11 of 15 just when the season is heating up?

    When you're not the same team you were a month ago and you're waiting for several of your best assets to return.

    The best team in the AL isn't even playing like a playoff team.

    The 2017 Astros will either right themselves and rise again, or a do-nothing trade deadline and all the questions will define a year that once felt so right.
     
  2. Bennie Anders

    Bennie Anders Member

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    Did the trailer-trash at the Chron really say "1981" instead of "1980"?
     
  3. Buck Turgidson

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    You may want to read up on the '81 postseason.
     
  4. Bennie Anders

    Bennie Anders Member

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    I don't have to "read up" on anything, Cletus. I was there.
     
  5. jim1961

    jim1961 Member

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    This team feeds on emotion and passion for the game. While injuries and poor individual performances have certainly played a role, a big part IMO is that our guys got it in their head that big help was on the way, and when it didn't happen, they let that disappointment get in their heads. They have let that decimate their team mojo.

    Putting aside what the FO didn't do or should have done, this team was a very good one before the trade deadline. Since little changed, they are still that team. They need to give up this mentality that "The Man" let them down, and realize instead that they are letting themselves down at this point. Whatever blame they are assigning to the FO, they need to be accountable for their own part in their play of late.
     
  6. K-Lo_The_Future

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    This white trash name calling is actually kind of funny sometimes...
     
  7. Baseballa

    Baseballa Member

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    We've played worse since the deadline, that's undeniable.

    However, the signs of a worn out bullpen and subpar starting rotation were there for weeks before the deadline. The flaws of this team have been apparent for a while, and saying it's simply a mental issue is oversimplifying the issue IMO.
     
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