The Angels passed the Astros on Tuesday night to move into the second wild-card spot in the American League with an 8–1 win over the Athletics followed by a 6–4 Astros loss in Seattle. In doing so, Los Angels has pushed Houston out of a playoff spot for the first time since April 18, rendering the 163 consecutive days that Houston occupied a playoff spot irrelevant. All that matters now for both the Angels and Astros is what happens over the final five days of the regular season.
The Angels’ win over the A’s, behind a dominant start from rookie Nick Tropeano (6 2/3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 11 K) and big hitting performances from Erick Aybar (2 for 5, 2B, 3B, 3 RBIs) and Albert Pujols (3 for 5, 2B, 3 R), was their seventh in a row. That streak started with a pair of wins in Houston last week and has now pushed their record to 18–8 (.692) on the month, including four wins in six head-to-head games against the Astros. Tuesday night’s result aside, the Angels haven’t been winning big. Five of their wins on the month have come via a score of 3–2 and two of their last four have been walkoffs, but they are winning, and with a half-game lead on Houston heading into the final five days of the season, they only need to win one more game than the Astros to spoil what had been one of the most compelling stories of the 2015 season.
Though no one expected them to have as much as a winning record coming into the season, the Astros have not been overachieving this year relative to the quality of their team. They have the fourth-best run differential in baseball and entered Tuesday night’s action with the third-best third-order record in the majors, greatly outdistancing the Angels, who rate as a sub-.500 team by both measures. Even if Houston does fall short of the playoffs, it could still wind up with the American League Cy Young award winner and Rookie of the Year (Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correa, who are in close races with David Price and Francisco Lindor, respectively). Since jumping out to an 18–7 start, surging into first place by April 19, the Astros played .500 ball or better in each of the season’s first five months (and it was better in four of them).
However, they slumped in early September, losing key series to the Rangers and Angels, and that made them vulnerable to a hot streak from a rival. Disastrously, the Rangers and Angels have gone on such streaks, with Texas surging ahead of Houston into first place with a walk-off win against the Astros on Sept. 15, and now the Angels slipping ahead of them as well.
With most of the rest of the playoff field long-since decided, the drama surrounding the Astros, in the AL West and wild-card races, is our last hope for late-season excitement this year. Fortunately, it is paying off. The Astros entered Tuesday with the hope of tying the Rangers in the win column and moving just 1 1/2 games behind Texas for the division lead they had held for so long. Instead, the Rangers outlasted the Tigers in a messy game for a 7–6 win. In Houston’s loss to the Mariners, Mike Fiers and the Houston bullpen were unable to hold a 4–2 lead in the sixth inning, with Fiers giving up a game-tying home run to Robinson Cano in the sixth and veteran relievers Oliver Perez and Pat Neshek combining to cough up two more runs in the eighth.
The Astros and Angels each have one game left in their current series, after which the Astros will have Thursday off before playing their final three games against the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. The Angels, meanwhile, finish with a four-game set against the Rangers in Arlington, starting with a Thursday night contest that will round off the half-game between the Halos and Astros in the standings. On its face, that would seem to be a favorable schedule for the Astros, as the Rangers are a playoff-bound team while the Diamondbacks are a losing one long-since eliminated. However, the half-game difference in the standings comes in the all-important loss column, meaning the Astros have already lost one more game than the Angels, and the Angels have played very well against the Rangers this year.
The Halos are 10–5 against the Rangers on the season, took two of three from them when last they met earlier this month and swept the Rangers in a three-game set the last time they traveled to Arlington back in early July. As well as the Rangers have played this month, and as beat-up as the Angels pitching staff has become—closer Huston Street is out for the remainder of the regular season with a Grade 1 groin strain, Jered Weaver and Matt Shoemaker are not guaranteed to be able to make another start this season and setup man Joe Smith has missed nearly two weeks with a sprained ankle, all of which prompted the signing of Mat Latos, who was released by the Dodgers over the weekend—Los Angeles is the hotter team right now. There’s actually an outside chance the Angels could overtake the Rangers for the division title, as L.A. trails Texas by just two games with four head-to-head contests remaining.
Regardless of how they get there, if the Angels do reach the playoffs this would be the first season since the creation of the Mets in 1962 that both New York and both Los Angeles teams made the postseason in the same year. I’m being only slightly presumptuous about the Yankees making it, as they’re up 3 1/2 games on the third-place wild-card team (Houston) with five games left. The Mets and Dodgers, however, have already clinched their divisions, with the Dodgers doing so Tuesday night, in style.
Some teams back into the postseason, clinching when their closest competitor suffers a loss in some distant city. This year’s Dodgers clinched the NL West on Tuesday night by beating the second-place Giants and their ace, Madison Bumgarner, 8–0 in San Francisco behind a one-hit shutout by ace Clayton Kershaw. He held San Francisco to a single and a walk while striking out 13, good for a game score of 97, his best since his no-hitter last June. How nasty was Kershaw on Tuesday night? This nasty:
After Tuesday’s results, with the Mets (89–68) falling 4–3 to the Phillies, the Dodgers (88–69) sit one game behind New York for the right to home-field advantage in their Division Series matchup.