Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The Astros are heading to the ALCS with a chance to make the World Series once again.
The Astros have officially advanced to the ALCS for seventh year in a row after taking down the Twins in four games. Houston’s season didn’t go as smoothly as the past few seasons, with a variety of injuries to their stars, leaving them in the Wild Card race for the majority of the season.
The Rangers were in control of the AL West throughout the year but it ultimately didn’t matter as the Astros came through when it mattered most by sweeping the Diamondbacks to steal the division on the last day of the regular season.
It felt inevitable that this would happen given the pure dominance that Houston has shown over the American League in recent years. But they had to fight until the end of the year to secure the division once again. They were still able to win 90 games despite missing Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez for significant time and Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers for the entire season. They brought back Justin Verlander to shore up the rotation and they made it work once again.
The Astros earned a bye after their excellent final week of the season and they haven’t looked back since, because they’re built for October. When they get to October, baseball just becomes easier for the Astros and they’re back in the American League Championship Series once again.
The Astros offense was expected to be one of the best throughout the season coming off a World Series and adding former MVP Jose Abreu in the winter. Despite the lack of Altuve and Alvarez and the regression of Abreu, the offense maintained pace to keep them afloat.
Yet none of their sub-par regular season performance mattered when this series arrived.
Yordan Alvarez is possibly the best hitter in the planet come October and that was on full display from start-to-finish of this series. He was the driving force behind their Game 1 win with two massive home runs as he reminded everyone that he is unstoppable in the postseason.
Jose Altuve started that game with a blast as the defending champions took care of business and showed that they’re still the team to beat in the American League.
The offense went stagnant aside from yet another Alvarez home run as Pablo López turned in a gem in Game 2. The Twins were able to secure a close victory and send the series back to Minnesota all tied up with their ace set to pitch. At this point, it felt like the Twins had a legitimate chance to win the series with Royce Lewis leading the way with his power.
Houston was never going to let that happen as the team was clicking on all cylinders as they crushed Sonny Gray in the first game back in Minnesota. Jose Abreu was the story of the game and their second-best player throughout the series as he launched two home runs in the third game as Alvarez and Bregman added home runs of their own in a 9-1 win.
After a career-worst season, Abreu has taken a liking to the big stage and came through in the biggest games of the year so far. In a series where Kyle Tucker had an uncharacteristically poor performance and Altuve didn’t produce much aside from his home run to start the series, Abreu’s contributions were pivotal.
In the fourth game of the series, Abreu delivered yet another home run and Michael Brantley came through with one of his own to finish off the Twins. With strong pitching performances as well, the production of a few leaders in the lineup was enough to take the Astros into the next round.
The duo of Alvarez and Abreu combined for 12 hits, seven home runs, and 14 RBI in just their first four games of the postseason. With them leading the charge, the Astros can win it all yet again, especially because it is highly unlikely that the likes of Altuve, Tucker, and Bregman remain quiet for much longer.
This bodes extremely well for the Astros heading into an all-Texas ALCS matchup with the high-powered Rangers lineup. If those three stars perform at their normal expected level to help support Alvarez and Abreu, this team will be very hard to beat per usual.
The biggest concern for the Astros throughout much of the season was how their rotation would hold up upon the departure of Justin Verlander and the injuries to both Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers early in the year. It doesn’t look like much of a concern at all right now.
Verlander was re-acquired at the deadline and the Astros have not looked back.
He turned in a gem in the first game of the series and will be on more than full rest for the start of the ALCS as he didn’t have to pitch in the hypothetical game five of the series against Minnesota. While he hasn’t always been great in the playoffs, he’s locked in right now and the Astros will likely roll him out as the leader of their staff until the future Hall of Famer retires.
One of the more concerning aspects of this series moving forward is the continued struggles of Framber Valdez as he has not been the same version of himself we saw last year in October. Valdez allowed five runs in the Astros Game 2 loss and just doesn’t have the same command of his stuff that we’re conditioned to expect from him every start.
Valdez is a key part of this rotation and offers a rather different look than their other arms. He will look to bounce back as Houston will undoubtedly still roll with him in the second game of the next series.
One of the most disappointing storylines during the regular season for Houston was the regression of Cristian Javier. After phenominal postseason showings in the past few seasons, Javier appeared ready to become the true two starter behind Valdez this season. He ended up having the worst season of his career, but that could be a trend of the past as he turned in one of his best starts of the year in the game that swung that momentum.
Javier allowed just one hit in his five innings to start the third game of the series that frequently determines the winner of a five-game set. With an offensive explosion helping ease his job, he looked like he did last postseason as he has now allowed just two hits in his last three postseason starts (yes, this is real!).
I sited Javier as the biggest X-factor for Houston entering the playoffs because he has top-end starter ability when he’s working at his best. If he’s able to continue pitching like this, the Astros are the team to beat the way I see it.
Some expected to see J.P. France, but the Astros went with veteran swingman Jose Urquidy in Game 4 and he delivered a rather strong start that finished off the series. France and Hunter Brown are both options to throw multiple innings when needed, but it feels likely that Urquidy will get the ball as the fourth starter for Houston in the next round.
The bullpen for Houston, other than Hector Neris, allowed just two runs as the back-end duo of Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly continues to impose their will on teams. Rafael Montero and Phil Maton got the job done efficiently in this series as well with clean innings of work.
The pitching staff as a whole looks sharp right now but they’ll face a much harder task in the next round as the Rangers offense is arguably the best in baseball at this current point.
It will be interesting to watch how Valdez adjusts in his next start and whether Javier can keep it up, but Houston is in a great position with their arms to return to their fifth World Series in the past seven years.
The Battle of Texas
We’re set for one of the best possible matchups imaginable in the ALCS. The two teams from Texas will battle it out in a faceoff between the perennial kings of the state and the exciting newcomer.
The Rangers have yet to lose a game in two rounds and look like the total package, but the Astros have been there and done that for the past seven years.
Both offenses will get their chance to shine with superstars filling each lineup but the pitching is where Houston seemingly could have the upper hand.
Texas has been able to pitch one of Jordan Montgomery or Nathan Eovaldi in four of their five games so far, but will need more innings out of the rest of their pitching in this series. The potential return of either or both Max Scherzer and Jon Gray would change the dynamic for Texas as they’d add another dynamic starter to the mix to help ease the pressure on Dane Dunning, Andrew Heaney, and their bullpen.
No matter what happens, this series is going to be incredible with either Houston continuing their reign over the Amercian League or Texas reaching the World Series for the first time since 2011.