After stumbling out of the gates in April, the Houston Astros have righted the ship and appear positioned to make a second half run at an American League West pennant.
Last year Houston made their first post-season appearance since 2005, as they knocked off the New York Yankees in the Wild Card game and pushed the eventual champion Kansas City Royals to the brink in the Divisional Series. Expectations were high for the club as they entered the season with a bevy of talented position players and a pitching staff led by reigning Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.
All did not go as planned in April as the team finished the month with a 7-17 record. Since April the Astros have gone 41-25 and have positioned themselves to be right in the thick of the playoff hunt once again.
One major second half key is Dallas Keuchel returning to last season’s form. Perhaps feeling the effects of a career high 232 regular season innings plus the playoffs, the Astros will certainly keep a watchful eye on Keuchel in the second half. Keuchel has shown signs of turning it around as he has a string of five straight Quality Starts heading into the All-Star break. Should Keuchel continue his recent success, the Astros will be in prime position to challenge the Texas Rangers down the stretch.
The pitching rotation should receive an added boost as Lance McCullers continues to work his way back from injury. Given the Rangers injury woes in their starting rotation, if the Astros can remain healthy they will posses the best starting five in the division. The ‘Stros also have been rumored to be in search of one more starter as the trade deadline approaches, which would only bolster their advantage over the rest of the division.
After a bit of musical chairs to start the season at closer, the Astros seemed to have settled on All-Star Will Harris in the ninth inning. With Harris locking down the ninth, the Astros will have the luxury of slotting Ken Giles and Luke Gregerson into the seventh and eighth inning. This trio will rival any backend of the bullpen in the division and will be key to their success over the second half.
The Astros offense figures to be much better in the second half as well. Injuries and underperformance have led the team to rely heavily on Jose Altuve and George Springer to start the season. Carlos Gomez and Evan Gattis should be healthy and ready to roll after the All-Star break, as both players look to shake out of their season long offensive funk. Lest we not forget the immense talents of Carlos Correa who has played well but not up to his superstar talents. If Gomez, Gattis and Correa all play up to their capabilities the Astros offense will be a force to be reckoned with as the playoff race heats up.
Two young players are likely to play key roles for Houston if they have any designs on tracking down the Rangers for a division title. Recent call up A.J. Reed and current top-prospect Alex Bregman both figure to receive ample playing time in the second half. Each player will fill important holes both in the field and in the lineup as the team has received very little production from the corner infield sports.
Heading into the second half the Astros sit five and a half games behind the Rangers in the American League West, and two games behind the Toronto Blue Jays and Boston Red Sox for the last Wild Card spot. The Astros are a team with World Series aspirations so they surely have their eyes on the Rangers and a division title. Catching the Rangers will be no easy task, but if the Astros continue their trajectory from May and June, they could be celebrating a divisional crown in early October.