The Houston Astros have their swagger back.
Remember, before the Los Angeles Dodgers had the greatest two months in major league history and before the Cleveland Indians reeled off the longest winning streak in 100 years and before the Washington Nationals clinched the NL East and the Chicago Cubs inched closer to the NL Central title, the Astros were the big story in baseball. They were 42-16 through June 5 and seemed invincible, with a high-powered offense, two All-Star starters in Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. and a deep bullpen.
Then came some injuries. Some of the pitchers regressed. The offense finally cooled off in August. The Astros went 11-17 that month and, with some uncertainty about the performance of Keuchel and McCullers, the front office made the big move it needed to make: On Aug. 31, the Astros acquired Justin Verlander.
He has made three starts with Houston and won them all, allowing two runs and just 10 hits over 21 innings. On Sunday, he fanned 10 in seven innings in a 7-1 win over the Seattle Mariners, as the Astros clinched their first AL West title and their first division title since winning the NL Central in 2001. At 91-58, the franchise record of 102 wins is probably out of reach with 13 games remaining, but a 7-6 finish would give them the second-most wins in Astros history. Here's the final out of Sunday's win:
Verlander's performance has undoubtedly erased the issue of who will start the first game of the division series. It has to be Verlander. While A.J. Hinch obviously has a huge amount of loyalty to Keuchel for what he has done for the Astros the past several years, Verlander is the better pitcher at the moment. Sure, two of his three starts with the Astros have come against the Mariners and the other against the Angels, but he owns a 1.99 ERA over his past 14 starts with 110 strikeouts and 23 walks in 95 innings. His swing-and-miss rate on Sunday was 38.6 percent, his highest of any game this season.
In looking through Verlander's season, one thing pops out at me: He's throwing his fastball more than he did early on. Through July, he was throwing it about 57 percent of the time, but that has been around 62 percent the past two months. That translates to only an extra five or six fastballs per game, but it does suggest more confidence in the command he has of the pitch. We can see that in his rate of 0-0 fastballs:
Through July: 65.7 percent
Since Aug. 1: 79.7 percent
It's the oldest philosophy in pitching: Get ahead with the fastball and put 'em away with the breaking stuff. While this isn't the Verlander who throws 100 mph, he still throws plenty hard. His average fastball velocity on the season is 95.3 mph. When Verlander posted a 4.54 ERA in 2014 and saw his strikeout rate drop drastically (159 in 206 innings) and then made just 20 starts in 2015, there were concerns his best days were behind him. Instead, he has made the transition from power pitcher to ... well, still a power pitcher. Maybe he hasn't had the overall season of dominance that Chris Sale and Corey Kluber have had, but Verlander looks like an ace right now. And that's going to give the Astros all the confidence they need heading into the postseason.
Cardinals collapse. The Mariners had a bad weekend, seeing their slim playoff hopes all but wiped away in getting swept in Houston (they went 0-6 against the Astros in September), but the worst weekend belongs to the Cardinals. They entered Friday's series at Wrigley just three games behind the Cubs. They left six games behind. The offense scored just six runs in three games, and went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Sunday's 4-3 loss.
The Cardinals haven't played well against the better teams all season. Their recent 11-3 hot streak came against the Giants, Padres, Pirates and Reds, but they're now 4-11 against the Cubs and 7-9 against the Brewers. They went 0-7 against the Red Sox and Yankees. They're not officially dead yet, as they finish the season with a seven-game homestand against the Cubs and Brewers, but they have to leap over two teams in the NL Central and two teams in the wild-card race.
Wild-card winner of the day. The Twins trailed the Blue Jays 5-0 entering the bottom of the second but reeled off a seven-run inning that included a home run and double from Byron Buxton. They went on to a 13-7 victory, while the Angels lost, increasing the Twins' lead to two games. The once-crowded AL race for that second wild card now looks like a two-team race. Boring.
Wild-card loser of the day. The Rockies still have a grip on the second NL wild card, but Sunday's loss hurt. They led the Padres 3-1, but gave up two runs in the eighth and one in the ninth. The winning run scored on this crazy play at home plate:
Holland was charged with an error on the play, but the rally started when he walked Matt Szczur with one out (and Szczur went first to third on an infield single). So Holland didn't get hit hard, but that's his fifth loss since Aug. 6.
Gallo is hitting .211, but because he has 38 home runs and draws walks, he has still been a productive offensive player, ranking 31st among all regulars in wOBA. He's finally proving his game will translate to the major leagues and, if he can somehow cut down on the strikeouts and hit .261 instead of .211, he could be an MVP candidate some day.
Matt Boyd's near no-no. You have to feel bad for Tigers lefty Matt Boyd, who was one out away from the first no-hitter by a left-hander in Tigers history:
Boyd came to the Tigers in 2015 in the David Price trade with the Blue Jays. He throws 92-94, with a curveball, slider and changeup, but is still learning the ropes in the majors. He was a strike-throwing machine in the minors but has had issues with the long ball with the Tigers -- 16 in 123.1 innings in 2017, which at least is a better ratio than in 2016. As he continues to figure out what works for him, he has thrown fewer sliders than he did earlier in the season. That makes sense because batters have slugged .587 against it; however, the lack of a good slider means he has had issues against left-handed batters, who are hitting .329 with a .400 OBP against him.
Anyway, it was a bright moment in a miserable season for Detroit. In what will be a rebuilding season in 2018, Boyd is one of the young Tigers who will get a chance to prove himself over a full season.