Astros will be tough to beat in October -- if they get there

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The Houston Astros aim to become the first team since the 1998-2000 New York Yankees to win back-to-back championships, their roster stuffed with future Hall of Famers and All-Stars. It's because of that extraordinary roster makeup that their summerlong meandering seems to make no sense.

In the first week of September, the Astros went to Arlington to face the Texas Rangers in what felt like a pivotal series, and reminded baseball that they are the defending World Series champions. The Astros clubbed 16 homers and outscored the Rangers 39-10 over three games, wrecking the upstart opponents who had led the American League West for much of the summer.

Since then, they've lost a series to the Oakland Athletics and another to the Kansas City Royals, two of MLB's worst teams, results consistent with the wild inconsistency of the Astros this season. Houston went into Atlanta in April and dominated the Braves over three days, and followed that by taking two of three from the scorching-hot Tampa Bay Rays; later, the Astros took two of three games in Baltimore against the Orioles. The Astros have played some of their best baseball against the best teams.

But go figure, they just lost two of three to the O's at home, where they are under .500 this season, and have slogged enough that they are in jeopardy of missing the playoffs altogether. This summerlong drift is reminiscent of the team whose back-to-back feat they are trying to match -- the dynasty Yankees, who increasingly struggled during the regular seasons even as they stacked up championships. A champion's malaise.

"When you're used to winning, when you're supposed to win," said Paul O'Neill, the right fielder on those Yankees teams, "it does get harder."