For the first ever time, the American League pennant has landed in Houston. Last night, the hometown Astros capped off a remarkable Championship Series against the New York Yankees, winning 4-0 in front of over 43,000 adoring fans. Now they’re headed to Los Angeles for their second Word Series appearance in franchise history, and first since 2005.
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Astros offense has been a little quiet lately. A power outage has sapped the life out of Houston’s bats over the last four games, as the team has managed just eight runs over that time.
On one hand, this is perplexing. The Astros can usually be relied upon to put up gaudy offensive numbers, and they’re receiving stellar contributions from George Springer, Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, and a resurgent Alex Bregman.
On the other hand, the struggle to score runs shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise. The ‘Stros are playing without a trio of key contributors: Carlos Correa, Brian McCann, and Evan Gattis are all on the shelf with injuries.
There’s good news on that front. Star shortstop Correa, who injured his thumb in mid-July, has been participating in fielding drills before recent games, taking ground balls and firing across the diamond. On Sunday, he faced a high-speed pitching machine for a session of batting practice. The next critic al step? On-field batting practice against a live pitcher on Tuesday. If all goes well, Correa will join a minor league team for a short rehab assignment and make his way back into Houston’s lineup in another week or so.
Catching tandem McCann and Gattis may be even closer to making their returns. The pair faced live pitching on Sunday, and each could return towards the end of the week. Gattis is expected to report to AA Corpus Christi to begin a rehab assignment on Tuesday, alongside relievers Will Harris and Tony Sipp. McCann may skip rehab altogether and rejoin the team ahead of Thursday’s game.
In an interesting piece of symmetry, Houston pitching has been every bit as stingy as its bats have been silent. Astros pitchers have stymied opposing bats over the last four games, giving up a total of four runs against Oakland, and four more against the Arizona Diamondbacks back on August 17. That’s a strong showing from a pitching staff many prognosticators felt was stretched a little too thin for the postseason chase.
The group is set to get even stronger sometime soon. Lance McCullers Jr., the 23-year-old curveball specialist who carved up major league lineups early this season before losing his mechanics and succumbing to injury, pitched a three-inning simulated game to Gattis and McCann on Sunday. His pitches moved well, and a rehab assignment shouldn’t be too far away. Expect the ‘Stros to be cautious here – a healthy, fully-rested McCullers could be a powerful weapon in the playoffs.
October In The Air?
The Astros hope to breathe some life into their offense this week at home against the Washington Nationals. They’ll need to – the Nats boast a strong starting rotation, fronted by perennial Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer. The ‘Stros will miss Scherzer this time around as the dominant righty fights to overcome persistent neck inflammation. But Dallas Keuchel faces Stephen Strasburg in the series finale on Thursday. What could be better than a late-summer interleague showdown between a pair of division leaders? It wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see these teams line up in October. Score your tickets to the possible World Series preview here.
It wasn’t the trade deadline most Astros fans were expecting.
Houston did swing a pair of minor moves today, including one trade before the 3 PM cutoff. But Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and company abstained from the big-name targets they were rumored to covet. Their lone trade acquisition? Left-handed starter Francisco Liriano, formerly of the Toronto Blue Jays.
The 33-year-old free agent-to-be has endured a rough 2017 to date, limping to a 5.88 ERA across 18 starts amid lower-than-usual strikeout totals. That’s a far cry from his customary production – for his career, Liriano has authored a solid 4.15 ERA in the role of a #3 starter with more than one strikeout per inning.
Current struggles notwithstanding, the veteran southpaw offers the Astros considerable upside if he can recapture the form he flashed earlier in his career. He’ll have to find that form in the bullpen – Luhnow indicated that the longtime starter will be deployed in relief as a power lefty capable of neutralizing same-handed batters.
Houston must believe in Liriano’s ability to get back on track – they parted with left fielder Nori Aoki and center field prospect Teoscar Hernandez to facilitate the exchange. Aoki has put together a characteristic high-average, low-power season as Houston’s fourth outfielder, but he’s ceded some playing time lately to talented rookie Derek Fisher. Meanwhile, Hernandez’ value is artificially depressed by the current logjam in Houston’s outfield – George Springer is a budding superstar, and he’s flanked by talented options like Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick, and Marwin Gonzalez. That’s not even mentioning Fisher or Kyle Tucker, Houston’s toolsy top prospect. Still, Aoki and Hernandez could slot straight into the Blue Jays’ major league roster – a high price for three months of Liriano.
In another minor move, the ‘Stros signed former Cincinnati and Tampa Bay reliever Jumbo Diaz to a minor league contract. Diaz pitched well as recently as last season, when he compiled a 3.14 ERA across 43 innings for the Reds. He was released by Tampa Bay earlier this season after losing his command and stumbling to a 5.70 ERA in 30 innings.
That Houston opted to add a pair of arms before the postseason is unsurprising. But the bigger story might be who the Astros didn’t acquire today – namely Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, Addison Reed, or Justin Wilson. Still more troubling is which teams did acquire those star pitchers: The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, and Cubs, respectively. All four figure to be postseason contenders, with the Dodgers widely favored to represent the National League in the World Series.
The lack of a big splash may come back to haunt Houston in October – in fact, Luhnow himself has already expressed a sort of non-buyer’s remorse, admitting to the press that he was “disappointed” not to land any of his top targets.
To make matters worse, Houston lost a pair of effective pitchers to the disabled list today. Sophomore starter Lance McCullers Jr. finds himself on the shelf for the second time this season. The young hurler has enjoyed stretches of dominance this year, but has struggled with his command since returning from a previous injury. In his six starts since returning to the Astros’ rotation, McCullers ran an unseemly 7.45 ERA. Joining McCullers is setup man Will Harris, who was returned to the DL with lingering shoulder soreness days after returning from the same injury.
There’s still time for Houston to land an impact talent through an August waiver trade. But losing McCullers and Harris stings. Acquiring Liriano and Diaz – and watching Gray and Darvish head elsewhere – does little to ease that pain. As luck would have it, the Astros’ roster actually got worse today. Hardly the outcome Houston had hoped for.