Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris O’Meara/AP/Shutterstock (13403685u) Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) celebrates with third baseman Alex Bregman (2) after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays during a baseball game, in St. Petersburg, Fla Astros Rays Baseball, St. Petersburg, United States – 19 Sep 2022
George Springer leaving for Toronto. Carlos Correa to Minnesota. Verlander missing time with Tommy John surgery: all things in recent years that people used as arguments to say that the championship window for the Houston Astros was coming to a close.
Unpredictable 2020 season aside, where they still made the ALCS, the Houston Astros have not allowed the things out of their control, like losing free agents or players to injury, stop them from being one of the most dominant teams in baseball over the last six full regular seasons.
With six games left for Houston in the regular season, they are simply waiting for one last box to get checked off: locking up the best record in the AL, which will earn them the top seed on their side of the playoffs. As we near the completion of the regular season, it’s worth taking a retrospective look at some of the things that got Houston where they are today:
Overcoming a disappointing April
While holding a .500 record may be far from “stumbling out of the gate,” for most teams, with the expectations the Astros had going into 2022, sitting at 11-11 on May 2nd seemed like a disappointment at the time. Things turned around quickly for them though, as we started to see the quality of this year’s pitching staff shine.
The Astros went from 11-11 to 32-18 by the end of that month, going 21-8 in May, including rattling off an eleven-game winning streak against the Mariners, Tigers, and Twins. While the offense undoubtedly played a big part, what was more apparent was that this year’s pitching core was going to be fun to watch.
Houston finished the first month of the season with a combined 3.59 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and a .230 opponent average. In May, they posted a 2.26 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, and .211 opponent average, including allowing just 12 runs over the eleven-game winning streak while holding opponents scoreless in five of those games. That was a taste of what they would do throughout the season, with them having the best pitching staff in the AL and all of baseball from May onward.
A return to Cy Young form
You can’t talk about this year’s pitching without also bringing up the incredible comeback season Justin Verlander has had. At age 39 and returning from Tommy John surgery, I’m sure many would have accepted him posting middle-of-the-pack quality numbers as he figured out his path back to his usual level of performance.
Instead, Verlander has had one of his best seasons and is the odds-on favorite to win the AL Cy Young for the third time in his career, despite a short stint on the IL with a calf issue.
“… just had to believe in myself, and my family had my back, and my teammates have my back.” “…if that were to happen, it would just be incredible.” – Justin Verlander when asked about him emerging as a Cy Young Candidate on July 29th, 2022.
If this most recent game is anything, it’s a microcosm of what Verlander is all about as a 17-year veteran in the league. Expectations were that he’d have no issues with a 71-84 Diamondbacks team, giving him a chance at a low-stress night to keep tacking on stats to his already elite year.
The D-Backs threw him a curveball, so to speak, by ambushing him with two runs in the first inning, although one was unearned. Like the doubts from others about his age and returning from injury, JV didn’t let that first inning define his outing, going on to finish seven innings, the last six scoreless, in an excellent rebound from the turbulent first to further solidify his candidacy for AL’s Cy Young award.
Continued dominance in the AL West
While the schedule will get an update in 2023 to have teams playing less against their division in favor of a schedule aimed to have all teams play each other during the year, the Astros took advantage of one last chance to beat up on the AL West this year. Houston went a combined 51-25 against their division, which looked like this:
- 12-7 vs. the Mariners
- 13-6 vs. the Angels
- 14-5 vs. the Rangers
- 12-7 vs. the A’s
While Texas, Oakland, and Los Angeles slowly faded from the competition over the season, the Mariners looked poised to make a run at dethroning the Astros from the AL West throne. Going back to Houston’s 11-11 start, the Mariners had a leg up going 12-10 over their first month, with the Angels even better at 15-8.
Houston and Seattle then squared off against each other, with Houston sweeping the three-game set to start their winning streak, eventually passing up the Angels on May 18th for the division lead and never looking back. The Mariners closed the gap to finish the first half of the season, getting within nine games of Houston. Still, with the Astros opening up with a two-game sweep of the Yankees and then taking six of seven against the Mariners in the ten days following that, Seattle never saw single digits again.
These are but a few of the major plotlines that unfolded during the regular season but are far from a complete collection of all the notable highs and lows. Some others that could undoubtedly warrant their own conversation:
- Jeremy Peña taking over adequately in Carlos Correa’s absence, including having a 20-homer rookie season
- Houston going 5-2 against the Yankees in the regular-season series and never trailing until two walk-off hits
- Framber Valdez’s incredible string of 25 quality starts
- Kyle Tucker taking another step forward towards one of the best in the game with a 100 RBI season, including joining the 20 homer / 20 steals club
- Hunter Brown’s impressive major-league debut
The Astros will check that last box in the coming days and claim the best record in the AL. Then, come October 11th with ALDS Game 1, we will temporarily put our thoughts about the regular season to the side while we wait and see if the Astros can make another run to show they’re still the dynasty of the AL.