How good does it get for the Astros these days? Good enough, apparently, that a slowly swelling cabal of analysts think they—not the Yankees, not the Blue Jays, not the Royals—are the American League’s team to beat. They didn’t say that about the Astros in their best years in the National League.
Now, the Astros are a team that likes to go out on the town
We like to drink and fight and f@ck till curfew comes around
Then it’s time to make the trek
We’d better be back to buddy’s check
It makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the team song dreamed up to the tune of Tom Lehrer’s once-familiar satire, “It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be A Soldier.” Jim Bouton, briefly an Astro as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, included it in Ball Four. Then, it was a little lighthearted relief on the team bus during a brief spell of 1969 pennant contention.
We don’t know if today’s Astros like to go out on the town, drink, fight, and fornicate, until or beyond any curfew. But we do know today’s Astros like to play winning baseball, by hook, crook, or any other means necessary. And they’ve gotten extremely good at it. Who do these guys think they are? Weren’t they supposed to spend this year finishing that much-discussed remake/remodel?
The weekend just finished, the Astros played like anything but a team coming down the stretch of a rebuild. They swept the Dodgers while standing up to Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke without an Astro having to throw a no-hitter to have a chance. That bushwhacking only began with the so-called “other guy” in the Carlos Gomez deal facing Brett Anderson and no-hitting the Dodgers on a fine Friday night in Minute Maid Park.
What was Mike Fiers previously? Take your pick. If he was known for anything famous or infamous alike, it was for throwing the pitch that broke Giancarlo Stanton’s face. If he was known other than that, it was probably for a miserable 2013 season followed by a forearm fracture that kept him out of most of 2014, until he reeled off seven out of eight quality starts to finish.
Fiers might have been known as the throw-in when the Astros shipped a gang of prospects to the Brewers to bag Gomez a few weeks ago. Now, he’ll be remembered for throwing Minute Maid’s first no-hitter ever and for letting the Dodgers know, despite the ramble-tamble of the no-no, that they weren’t going to spend the weekend with a gang of pushovers.
Pretty slick for a guy who took the mound with a 22-28 lifetime won-lost record, a fastball that wasn’t exactly going to earn any speeding tickets, and no known experience pitching in the ninth inning. Can you think of a better way to pitch your first complete game, too?
Fiers’ jewel launched a weekend that ended with Kershaw himself—whose team is addled by a half-asleep offense and a bullpen who could be tried by jury for arson, or at least non-support in getting games to closer Kenley Jansen—saying he hopes his team is hitting the panic button.
It gets this good for the Astros, who looked like they were having a little pre-All-Star run until they hit the break having lost eight of its previous nine: A rookie, Lance McCullers, keeps them in the game against Kershaw Sunday, on a day Kershaw looked to be dealing as normal and even foiled Gomez’s rather daring bid to steal home in the sixth. Kershaw simply lofted an eephus to catcher A.J. Ellis and the diving Gomez, hoping to tie the game then and there, was a dead pigeon with three feet to spare.
Did the Astros panic? No way. Somehow they hung in to tie up in the ninth off Jansen himself, on a leadoff single by rookie comer Carlos Correa, and—after Correa swiped second, and with the Dodgers an out away from the win—Marvin Gonzalez firing a liner to the back corner of the right field grass to score Correa with the tyer.
Then they rolled out the heavy artillery in the tenth—courtesy of a guy having his worst season to date, Jason Castro, lofting one over the left field scoreboard off Chris Hatcher. Who cared that it would have been an out in any other park? (Castro’s loft was the shortest bomb of the season to date, a measly 341 feet.)
And this was after a Saturday night in which Jose Altuve, having a season that’s a modest one for himself but a possible contract season for a lesser light, got to have some fun at the expense of one of his favourite patsies. He’s now 8-for-15 lifetime against Greinke. He opened with a triple and scored on an infield error two hitters later in the first; then, with the Astros up 2-1 in the sixth, he smashed a one-out, 2-1 Greinke mistake into the left field pavilion.
It helped Scott Kazmir put an end to a three-start losing streak after winning his first Astro start since coming from the Athletics in a deal.
The Astros aren’t doing this with big breakout seasons. They’re not even doing it with George Springer, who’s been out since 2 July with a wrist fracture and has only now begun taking batting practise. It’s been a team thing. Especially the bullpen. That pen leads the American League with a 2.63 ERA and the entire Show in keeping the other guys’ OPS down to just about below replacement-level: .594. Six no-names whom some writers call the Legion of Doom.
This is the team whose rebuilding effort was supposed to begin bearing real pennant-competitive fruit next year. The Astros right now are playing as if to say, “Wait ’till this year.” They have winning records against all but two teams, including this weekend’s Dodger sweep, 4-3 against the Blue Jays, 4-2 against the Royals, and 8-5 against their AL West rival Angels—who look like a big mess right now, after a weekend bushwhacking by the Jays left them having lost seven of their previous ten.
And they also lead the American League in walk-off wins with seven. Four of which have come in the past week. The words “must-see baseball” haven’t been applied to a Houston team since the peak of the Bagwell-Biggio era, but that’s what they’re calling Astros baseball these days.
It is not an unwelcome development. Before the All-Star break the Astros were just fun. Now, they’re required watching. Especially for teams having to face them down the stretch. It makes a fellow proud to be an Astro.