I don’t think this is a jinx situation at this point. The Astros have an 11-game lead in the AL West with 22 games to go. Could they lose this lead at this point? Yes, mathematically, it is possible. Will they lose this lead? No.
So, let’s talk about the five most critical Astros heading into the playoff run that is coming in about 4 weeks.
- Yordan Alvarez. The last month or so has shown the Astros a new facet to the Alvarez legend. It has been truly the first time that Alvarez has not been on the IL but has been struggling to affect his run production. In 2019, his “worst” month was September, when he slashed .296 BA/ .394 OBP/ .999 OPS with 6 homers and 16 RBIs. After missing two games in 2020, he had a poor slash in July 2021 (.213 BA/ .294 OBP/ .761 OPS) but still had 6 homers and 17 RBIs. But this August, he was in a power drought (possibly due to hand issues) as his slash was well below average (.234/.326/.638) with 1 homer and 10 RBIs. His swing seemed to be returning to him the last week, and he finally launched a homer on Sunday. The Astros need his big bat to be productive if they want to roll through the playoffs.
- Justin Verlander. All of the discussion about JV’s return from his leg muscle pull has been positive. He threw a simulated inning this weekend, and they are acting like he may return by the end of the week. That would give him about 3 starts to get himself back on track in a season where he has been putting up Cy Young-worthy numbers. The Astros went deep in the playoffs the last couple of seasons without Verlander, but it feels like they need him pitching at top proficiency to push through to another World Series title.
- Lance McCullers Jr. Getting the kind of performance McCullers has given the Astros since his return from the IL (3-1, 2.22 ERA in 5 starts) has been like adding an All Star level arm to the rotation in the most critical part of the season. The only real drawback has been his control issues, as he is at 4.7 walks / 9 IP in 2022. His seven-inning, one-walk start last time out was a step forward. If Verlander returns at the same level he was, the Astros top three of Verlander, Framber Valdez, and McCullers are among the top starting threesomes in the majors.
- Ryan Pressly. Pressly has been out a couple times with minor injuries, and in his stead, Rafael Montero and Hector Neris have been picking up the slack in the save department. But having Pressly available and pitching well gives the team a much deeper bullpen, as does the recent success of Bryan Abreu (19 straight scoreless appearances). The bullpen is always a wild card in the playoffs, but it would be good to have one of our most experienced playoff warriors hitting on all cylinders at the most critical time.
- Alex Bregman. This could be Kyle Tucker, but Bregman is the most critical right-hand bat in the lineup, and that is important when the other team tries to wipe out Alvarez and Tucker with a left-hander. For about the last two months, Bregman has been hitting a lot closer to his 2018/2019 self with a slash of .304 BA/ .403 OBP/ .973 OPS with 43 runs, 12 HRs, and 42 RBIs in his 58 games since July 5. They need that solid bat to make the other team suffer when they walk Yordan ahead of him in the playoffs.
There are certainly other key players heading towards the playoffs. Who is in your top 5 or 10 lists?