Health and headaches down the American League stretch

Verlander pitched and won the clincher for the Astros in the AL West, but the league's stretch excitement and possible chaos aren't done yet . . .

Verlander pitched and won the clincher for the Astros in the AL West, but the league’s stretch excitement and possible chaos aren’t done yet . . .

Well, the Astros have gotten everything they wanted from Justin Verlander since dealing to bring him over from the incredible shrinking Tigers. Including, they dared to dream, the still-formidable righthander pitching and winning the American League West-clinching game, which he did Sunday in his first home start for his new club.

Verlander beat the Mariners 7-1 in near-vintage form, striking out ten in seven, his only real blemish Ben Gamel sending one into the right field bullpen after he got rid of his first seven hitters swiftly enough. In case you wondered, Verlander as an Astro is 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA.

Clinching the West was more than a little balm for the Astros, who spent the first half of the season as baseball’s arguable best team, before the Dodgers overthrew that status first before collapsing to the point where the white-hot Indians and their 22-game winning streak left the Tribe in the arguable-best position.

The Astros could still finish strong enough to end the season with baseball’s best record. Could. Right now they’ll settle for a) being baseball’s only team to win division titles in three different divisions (remember, they were the team to be named later in the deal that made National Leaguers out of the Brewers); and, b) going to their second postseason in three years following a ten-year absence.

Nobody was more satisfied with what’s happened since Verlander became an Astro than Verlander himself.

“I don’t think you could ask for a better introduction for me to the city of Houston than this,” he told reporters after Sunday’s game, in which he was aided and abetted by four Astro bombs including and especially Marwin Gonzalez’s blast off the rear side rail of the seats above the left field scoreboard in the fifth.

“First home start would have been great,” Verlander continued. “First home start and a win would have been great. First home start and to win in a division-clinching game—you can’t make that up. And I’m looking forward to hopefully many more wins.” A few in October wouldn’t exactly depress him, either.

The question becomes through whom the Astros must go to get them. There’s less chaos in the Trump Administration than in the American League wild card picture at this writing, not to mention that the Yankees have picked themselves up and dusted themselves off to make a dogfight with the Red Sox in the AL East. The Olde Towne Team leads this morning by three games; both themselves and the Empire Emeritus are 7-3 in their last ten games.

But there are those including Yahoo! Sports’s Jeff Passan who think a seven-way wild card tie in the AL isn’t an unrealistic thought. But look a little closer. Consider, as Passan does:

* The Yankees as of this morning lead the AL wild card pack, and right this split second the second card is the Twins’ to lose, particularly being two games ahead of the Angels and facing a remaining schedule that includes seven whacks at those incredible shrinking Tigers. And with Aaron Judge seemingly re-horsed for keeps, so far.

* The Yankees have something to play for beyond any wild card. Aside from being three games back of the Red Sox in the East, they’d like nothing better, Passan reminds us, than to avoid a wild card game and, assuming they win that game if that’s where they go, opening October against the Indians.

* The Angels managed to claw their way into the wild card picture despite losing Mike Trout for what seemed a third of the season with the thumb fracture he incurred sliding into base. They’re hardly baseball’s most consistent team, and even Trout playing like an MVP despite his lost time can’t carry them by himself, but they’ve played a game over .500 in their last seventeen, just elusive enough ahead of the Mariners (four and a half out in the wild card race) and the Rangers (five out).

* The good news for the Mariners, after the Astros clinched the West on their dollar: They can shove the Rangers back far enough to matter this week, since the two teams open a three-game set in Seattle Tuesday night. The bad news: Whatever they do to the Rangers, the Mariners get to host the Indians this coming weekend, and nobody needs to remind the Mariners that these Indians are no pushovers. After that, they get a break going to Oakland but have to finish against the Angels, who won’t go gently into that good gray night, either. We think.

* Unless, of course, the Angels get done in by the visiting Indians during the three-set starting Tuesday in Anaheim, or by the Astros in Houston over the weekend to come. This week could be the week the Angels either show they’re made of October stuff, after all, or get pinned back far enough to start getting ready for (they hope) an injury-free next year.

* Assume the Rangers survive their trip to Seattle this week. Now, assume they use the Athletics for target practice this weekend to come. In fact, the Rangers play six of their final twelve against the hapless in green and gold. The problem is that, in between games three and four, they have to host the Astros. That could put a finish to the Rangers for the season. It may depend upon whether the Astros are so focused on October now that they’ve clinched their division that they get a little lax. May.

* The Yankees, on the surface, seem to have it made for ease of schedule the rest of the way, if they can get past a well-heated club of Twins who’ve won seven of their last eleven. Because following their set with the Twins starting tonight in New York, they visit the Blue Jays for three, then come home to finish the season with a makeup game against the Royals (the Yankees need it, the Royals kind of do), three with the Rays, and the final two against the Jays.

* Since losing two of three to the Yankees, the Red Sox have won eight of eleven. They have a grand chance to fatten their calf with a three-set against the Orioles starting tonight, what’s left of the Reds next weekend, and the Blue Jays next week. But guess who they face to close out the regular season—the Astros. And if the Orioles and the Jays are bent on playing spoiler knowing someone else might be heating up concurrently, the Red Sox may not have things as simple as
they hope.

* The Royals and the Orioles, five games back each in the wild card race, still have an outlier’s chance of pulling up with surprises in the final week, depending on how they play this week.

Nothing seems simple in the American League overall now. Fume as you must over the thought of most of the excitement coming on behalf of determining who gets to finish . . . in second place. But try not to pretend there isn’t more than a little excitement in it regardless. A little excitement, and maybe a few frayed nerves in a few clubhouses and stands.

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