The Houston Astros return to Earth

Andy Livingston

Dallas Keuchel

It takes all the might in the world to prevent sportswriters from littering their headlines with “Houston, We Have a Problem” in regard to the Astros woes, but really, what the heck is going on?

For the month of September, the Astros have gone 7-14, including a four-game sweep at the hands of the team they’re battling with for the AL West title, Texas Rangers. On September 16, the Astros fell from first place in the division—a position they’ve held since the first week of the season—leaving them in the second Wild Card spot and in risk of missing out on the playoffs altogether.

The Rangers may have the evil dark lord on their side:

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 2.24.55 PM

But the Astros have done more to shoot themselves in the foot than the Rangers have outplayed them. Despite a run differential of +88 and being 9th in the league in runs with 670, their batting average (.246) and on base percentage (.311) are both in the lower half of the American League. They’ve also lost 16 one-run games since the All Star break.

The Houston hitting can’t take all the blame as the pitching has also been a huge issue. Scott Kazmir, a mid-season acquisition when Houston was squatting atop of their division, has won only one game in September and has a 4.71 ERA with the Astros. Kazmir was pulled from his last start, a 10-6 win over the Oakland Athletics, after only 3.2 innings. Scott Feldman made four quality starts in August, three of them resulting in wins, but has only made one appearance in September and it was relief appearance in a 7-5 loss against the Seattle Mariners. He was then placed on the 60 Day Disabled List. Lance McCullers had a huge improvement over his ERA from August to September (7.43 to 3.00) but has been the recipient of many of those aforementioned one-run losses, and hasn’t won a game in September at all.

Relief pitching isn’t helping much either. Chad Qualls has given up nine hits in eight games of relief in September when he gave up six runs in all of August and only four in July. Pat Neshek has been rocked the most of that relief unit, giving up 11 hits, seven runs, and two home runs in September. He’s been credited for three losses for a monthly ERA of 7.71 ERA. Neshek only gave up three runs in August.

Closer Luke Gregerson had nine saves in the month of May—even with a troublesome 5.91 ERA—and his August was even more impressive with four saves and three wins and a 1.54 monthly ERA, but has since only recorded three saves and a loss. Overall, relief pitching is responsible for recording the losing run in ten losses in September. Against the Angles to end this week, the Astros pitching gave up a home run to Albert Pujols on September 22 in the eighth inning, which proved to be the winning run. And on the 23, they gave up three runs in the eighth, again losing by one run.

It appears the rest of the league has finally figured out how to beat the Astros and it’s come at the worst time. Houston lost two out of three to a Los Angeles Angels team chasing them for a Wild Card berth, before ending the month against the Texas Rangers (determined to widen their division lead) and the Seattle Mariners (determined to do… something I guess).

As of the September 24, Houston has a one-game Wild Card lead over the Minnesota Twins, 1.5 against the Los Angeles Angels and four over the Baltimore Orioles. If someone decides to turn on the jets in the Wild Card race, the Astros will have no way to bounce back into orbit this post-season. As team owner Jim Crane put it, if they miss the playoffs after one of the biggest year-to-year turnarounds in MLB history, it will be a “huge disappointment.”

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