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Astros ready to lift off for an October destination

Add this to the list of things you probably didn’t see coming five months ago: The Houston Astros just swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-game series. They did it in a series in which they had to face both Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, and they won both of those games without the benefit of getting a Mike Fiers no-hitter, which is how they started things off Friday night.

Remember how some analysts were chuckling over how the Astros had a nice little run in the first half but weren’t going to stick around atop the American League West in the second half? It was totally understandable: The Los Angeles Angels have the stars, after all, while the Astros were supposed to stick with their long-term plan. Then Houston tumbled into the break losing eight of its previous nine games.

But there's no more of that talk. Thanks to top-to-bottom power in their lineup, some of the best defense in the league, a doubly reinforced rotation with Fiers and Scott Kazmir, and to the most underrated bullpen in baseball, it’s beginning to look like the Astros are the AL’s team to beat. Not the Toronto Blue Jays, not the New York Yankees, not the Kansas City Royals.

Sure, it’s “just” the regular season. Sure, this was just a three-game series in August. But beating the team with the best one-two rotation punch in baseball in the middle of a pennant race demonstrates that you can beat anybody in a short series.

But while Friday’s win was about Fiers’ no-hitter and Saturday’s win is owed much to Jose Altuve's strange power over Greinke, then Sunday’s 3-2 victory saw nothing unusual. It was just a classic grinder’s win.

Consider the key takeaways. First, rookie Lance McCullers kept the Astros in a game against Kershaw. That’s two awesome pitchers dealing -- one of them is Kershaw, the other an Astro. Second, look at how the Astros tied the game in the ninth: Not with a homer -- they left that card in the deck -- but on utilityman Marwin Gonzalez's single to score Carlos Correa from second with two outs after a stolen base. And then, just to remind people that these are still the bashing Astros, Jason Castro homered in the 10th for the walk-off win despite having what has so far been the worst season of his career.

Castro’s blast really exemplifies one of the really cool things about the Astros' romp this year: They’re not doing it now because one or two players are carrying them with extraordinary seasons. Sure, Dallas Keuchel is having his best year yet, but he made his introduction as a rotation front man last year. Correa just got here, but as awesome as he is, he isn’t showing us anything that wasn’t predicted for him. Carlos Gomez might be everybody’s favorite underrated superstar and deadline addition, but he still hasn’t made an impact as an Astro. Altuve isn’t having his best season, just another really good one. George Springer is still on the disabled list. No, the conclusion to draw from this is that Houston is on top of the AL West due to team-wide performance, not breakout performances.

And that’s reflected by what they’re getting from their bullpen, which is still going strong. As a unit, Astros relievers are leading the AL in bullpen ERA (2.63) and MLB in opponents OPS (.594). They’re only trailing the Yankees among AL teams in reliever strikeout rate, whiffing 25.1 percent of the people they face. And just to provide a reminder, they’re not just on the same planet as the Royals, they’re in the same league -- and they’re pitching better than those guys -- still. They're doing this with a group of men almost all on the wrong side of 30 who are all supposedly known quantities. Only Will Harris is the one real surprise for what he has done in the seventh and eighth innings. By the power of Charlie Kerfeld, it’s time to dub him a true fireman.

Put it all together, and the same strengths that put the Astros in the conversation back in May are still there, but now this team has Kazmir, Correa, Fiers, Gomez, McCullers and their six-handed legion of doom in the pen. It’s a team that just showed it’s good enough to beat the best rotation tandem in baseball. It’s going to earn the right to prove whether or not it can do that sort of thing in October too.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.