Slogging through 2020, the Astros reach for a postseason spot no one wants them to have

So on the final Monday of the regular season, 71-year-old Dusty Baker — Houston Astros manager, baseball warhorse — was trying to explain why George Springer, his best player, was not in the lineup for a game later that evening.

The Astros were in Seattle to play the only team with a real chance to catch them over the seven days ahead. That his club was in this position at all — four games in front of the third-place, American League West Mariners with seven to play — had less to do with the capabilities of the Astros than the kindness of a 16-team postseason format. Still the Astros, whose lead would soon shrink to three games and whose record would drop to 27-27, were going to qualify by little more than the tails of their shirts or not at all, because they’d been wrecked by injuries and off years and, as they will be judged in the ether, karma.

For a good team, a three-game lead with a week to play lives somewhere between dicey and a comfortable coast. For the Astros, they are just two weeks removed from a six-game losing streak and are playing their final seven games on the road, where they already had lost 18 of 25 games.

Springer, their leadoff hitter, had hit .304 with eight of his 13 home runs in September, the month we’re in, the month that ends — for the purpose of baseball’s regular season — on Sunday.

Meanwhile, Alex Bregman came off the injured list two weeks ago and has hit .133 since. Jose Altuve is batting .222, and .192 since Bregman’s return. Yuli Gurriel is batting .155 in September. Carlos Correa has hit one home run in a month.

All of which happens occasionally. Lineups go colder than a principal’s after-school glare.

But, as the Astros go, it’ll be viewed in its contextual place, where a few good hitters falling into simultaneous slumps would rank behind, oh, Justin Verlander’s blown elbow, Roberto Osuna’s elbow troubles, Yordan Alvarez’s knee surgeries, a bullpen largely remade with young men who’d never pitched above Single- or Double-A, a defense that ranks among the worst in the game, Gerrit Cole’s free agency and then whatever vibes remained from the cheating scandal that washed up on the franchise that had attended two World Series in the previous three seasons.

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 21: Carlos Correa #1 and Alex Bregman #2 of the Houston Astros have a conversation in the seventh inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on September 21, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
The Astros' 2020 has been a struggle, but they are still in position to make the expanded postseason. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The bullpen crisis alone would have undone plenty. Pitchers who had never faced a batter in the big leagues have covered more than half of the Astros’ relief innings. Include Cy Sneed, whose prior major-league experience had been 21 ⅓ innings, Bryan Abreu, who’d thrown 8 ⅔ innings in 2019, and Brooks Raley, a 32-year-old who pitched the past five seasons in Korea, and you’re up to more than two-thirds of the relief innings. Baker, pitching coach Brent Strom and bullpen coach Josh Miller somehow turned this into something pretty presentable, or at least passable, meaning they’ve more than survived it.

Assuming the next week does not come wrapped in a collapse, the plan is to reassign at least one of Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier to the bullpen for the first round, which, as of today, would be a best-of-three series with the Oakland A’s, against whom the Astros are 3-7.

As you can probably tell by all this, these are not the 100-plus-win Astros of the past few years, the team Jeff Luhnow built and A.J. Hinch drove. They are rather the team undone by unchecked ambition and breathtaking arrogance, and after that ill-timed injuries and underperformance.

The Astros, then, had become wholly average in about every way, and it seemed a strain to even get there, which in a way is intended as a compliment to Baker and general manager James Click. In a tough season for everyone (and some of their issues were self-inflicted), the Astros, once and briefly royalty, were by Monday on the verge of being one of 16, and thankful for it.

Then, well, they’d start over.

“I’ve said this before,” Strom told Houston reporters recently, “I don’t think very many people really want us to get in.”

He didn’t mean that the way you might think.

Strom continued: “We could be a nightmare for some people if we get hot and some guys really start to come forward. And we’re due right now.”

The Astros won’t be anyone’s Cinderella outside of Houston. As it is, a season without fans probably did their psyches a momentary favor, given what would have been waiting in stadiums across the country. But, in any other circumstance, they would by now have paid that debt and given the aggrieved what they’d come for, that being a good, soul-cleansing clatter. Instead that waits for whenever the doors are reopened.

“Well, I mean, it’s been my toughest assignment to get to the playoffs, I mean in my career, during this year,” Baker said. “With all the COVID-19, with all the injuries, with all the whatever. This is 2020. This is how this year has been. So, yeah, it would be very gratifying.”

One of 16 (of 30) maybe doesn’t sound so promising unless you happen to be Dusty Baker, and every lift has been heavy, and every time you handed the ball to someone you wanted to muss his hair and buy him an ice pop, and then days from having no less than Justin Verlander return you’re told it’ll actually be another year and a half.

So, anyway, no George Springer for a night, his best player, a couple wins from making it happen, becoming one of 16. The Statcast, Baker said, said not to play Springer.

“It shows that he’s extremely high risk today,” he said. “Similar to, or even more high risk, than when Bregman pulled his hamstring in Colorado, and we were trying to nurse him through ’til we got back home. We were going to give him a day off. We really can’t afford to have Springer out for any extended period of time, so I figured today was the day that we’d give him off to work on his legs, some maintenance on his legs. Because, he beat out an infield single, he did a lot of running in the outfield, then that inside-the-park home run [Sunday], kind of really took it out of him. So, it was exciting, but I just didn’t want to … The Statcast data is kind of new to me and new to baseball and it seems like it’s pretty accurate. We decided that today would be the day. Especially [with the Mariners’] bullpen kind of overworked. So, you take a chance today of him not being in the lineup or you take a chance of losing him for 10 days or more if he ends up being injured.”

He’s not hurt.

“Well,” Baker said, “no, he’s not hurt. But, like I just told ya, our Statcast data shows that he’s on the road to possibly get hurt. We can’t take a chance.”

That was good enough for Baker. Besides, he said, from behind purple-hued glasses, “I’m the manager.”

And doesn’t he know it.

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