Is midnight about to strike for baseball’s Cinderella team? Pegged for another losing season, the Astros have instead spent 133 days in first place in the American League West this year, building a lead as large as 5 1/2 games after taking two of three from the Yankees in the Bronx two weeks ago. However, they have gone just 4–7 since, while the Rangers, another team projected to finish toward the bottom of the division, continue to defy expectations by surging up the standings. As a result, with Texas’ 9–6 win over the Mariners and the Astros' 4–0 loss to the Athletics on Tuesday night, the Rangers have pulled within one game of Houston for the division lead, making the AL West the closest division in baseball and threatening to ruin what has seemed like a dream season for the ahead-of-schedule Astros.
You could argue that the Astros’ continued presence in first place has almost as much to do with poor performances elsewhere in their division as with their own success. Houston moved into first by taking two of three from the Angels on the season’s second weekend, the start of a 14–1 streak that put the team seven games up in the West with an 18–7 record. However, Los Angeles caught the Astros by the All-Star break, moving two games ahead into first place on July 21. Houston has not played especially well since then, but the Angels have cratered, going 15–29 (.341) since July 23 to fall 5 1/2 games back into third place. The A’s failed to translate their impressive early-season run differential into wins and sold off several key players at the non-waiver trading deadline, including sending lefty Scott Kazmir to the Astros. The Mariners, meanwhile, haven't spent a day above .500 since losing the second game of the season. As such, the Rangers have become the primary threat to the Astros almost by default.
However, the Rangers’ rise to relevancy is more than a default position. It was Texas that snapped the Astros’ ten-game winning streak back in April, sweeping them in Houston; dating back to the first game of that series on May 4, the Rangers have the third-best record in the AL, going 65–48 (.575) over that span, a record bested by only the Blue Jays and Royals. The Astros, over the same span, have been 57–57; the Rangers have been 8 1/2 games better than Houston over the last 115 games. Now, with 25 games left to play and the two teams tied in the loss column, Texas needs to be just two games better than the Astros the rest of the way to win the division and force Houston to contend with the Yankees or Blue Jays in the AL Wild-Card Game.
That’s not the slam dunk is sounds like. An 8 1/2-game advantage over 115 games translates to just shy of two games over 25, and as of Wednesday morning, Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds still gave the Astros a 71.2% chance of winning the division. The latter figure, however, is based in part on the advanced statistics that say that, records aside, Houston has played much better than the Rangers both on the season as a whole and over that 115-game stretch. As strong as Texas’ record has been over that span, the team has outscored its opponents by just two runs over those 115 games; the Astros have outscored theirs by 62. Third-order record paints Houston as a .597 team on the season, with the Rangers, who have been outscored on the season, coming in at .473. With the Astros still in the lead in the division, that advantage translates to very favorable odds of holding on to first.
However, the Rangers are a very different team now than they have been all season. Cole Hamels, Derek Holland and Martin Perez—who will start against the Mariners on Wednesday night—are in the rotation, and Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman are in the bullpen. The lineup is healthy, and Texas has a deep bench that now includes Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton and Joey Gallo. The Rangers outscored their opponents in just one of the season’s first four months, but they are +15 in runs scored since the calendar flipped to August, much closer to the Rangers' +23 over that same span than the larger picture would suggest.
While the Rangers have restocked their rotation with Hamels and Holland—the latter of whom has been outstanding, posting a 2.15 ERA in four starts and allowing just one run in 17 innings over his last two—the Astros’ rotation is comprised mainly of relatively inexperienced starters entering uncharted innings territory. As great as Dallas Keuchel has been, he has now thrown two-thirds of an inning more than his previous career high, set last year. Collin McHugh, who will start in Oakland on Wednesday night and has been outstanding over his last six starts (1.54 ERA), is two-thirds of an inning away from passing his previous career high of 173 2/3, set last year. Twenty-one-year-old rookie Lance McCullers, who spent three weeks in the minors in August to ease his workload, is at 128 2/3 innings compared to a previous career high of 104 2/3 set in 2013; he has never played this deep into September before. Kazmir is well shy of his innings total from a year ago, but he has managed just two quality starts in his last seven turns and is getting dismal run support: The Astros have averaged fewer than two runs per game over his last eight starts and have scored more than three runs in a game for him just once in nine turns.
The good news for Houston is that its offense, which slumped in August, is coming around. Centerfielder Carlos Gomez, whom I picked as one of the worst-performing deadline acquisitions last week, has hit .314/.357/.490 over his last 13 games. Third baseman Jed Lowrie, who was awful in his first month back from an extended disabled list stay, has gone 11-for-27 (.407) with three home runs over his last eight games. It’s too early to say much about George Springer, who returned from the DL just four games ago and hasn’t hit much since, but his return to the lineup is certainly encouraging on its face.
What’s less encouraging for the Astros is that they are 4–8 against the Rangers on the season and have suffered sweeps at the hands of Texas both in Arlington and their home ballpark. As in the AL East, this race could ultimately come down to the seven remaining head-to-head games between these two teams, starting with a four-game set in Arlington that begins on Monday; those seven head-to-head games comprise nearly a third of their remaining games. Both teams play all but three of their remaining games against intra-division opponents, with the Rangers’ exception being a three-game home set against the Tigers to start the final week and the Astros’ exception being a three-game set in Arizona to finish the season.
That sets up a fantastic string of playoff-quality series heading into next week. The current Mets-Nationals series concludes on Wednesday night with a matchup of Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg, followed by four days of Jays-Yankees in the Bronx from Thursday to Sunday and then four days of Astros-Rangers in Arlington starting on Monday. Both should be fascinating series, and two of the AL’s three divisions could look very different by the time the Astros return home next Friday.