Astros seek to repeat in second half of season

The Houston Astros celebrate with the trophy after their win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 7 of baseball's World Series Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Astros won 5-1 to win the series 4-3. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

Now that the All-Star game has come and gone, the second half of the Major League Baseball season is off to the races. The defending world champion Houston Astros are sitting atop the AL West division with 64 wins, second most in all of baseball.

The Astros are seeking to put some distance between themselves and the AL West’s second-place Seattle Mariners. In addition, the franchise is poised to be the first repeat World Series champions since the Yankees did it in 1999-2000.

The first half of the season saw the Astros play outstanding baseball, but watching the team perform, one realizes they have yet to play at their maximum potential for a 15-20-game stretch.

“To be honest, this team has not played up to its potential,” said GM Jeff Luhnow. “We’ve hit into a lot of double plays, we’ve had some guys go through extended slumps, we’ve punched out more than we did last year. Our bullpen has had periods where it’s blown a couple of leads.”

The Astros are blessed with the best starting pitching staff in the MLB. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton and Dallas Keuchel collectively led the majors in ERA (3.02) and opponents’ batting average (.209) over the first half of the season.

Collectively, they also led the majors in innings pitched (613). The obvious concern for manager A.J. Hinch is not to wear out the starters’ arms before the playoffs begin.

“We have a good enough rotation where I don’t even have the flirtation of skipping guys or trying to bring guys back early,” Hinch explained. “That’s essentially like a six-man rotation, with the sixth man being an off-day, so I feel good about that.”

As the MLB trade deadline approaches (July 31) expect Luhnow to carefully consider adding more arms to the bullpen. The team could use a bonafide closer now that the Ken Giles has been sent to Triple A Fresno. Baltimore closer Zach Britton is believed to be at the top of Luhnow’s wish list. To acquire him they would have to part with some of their top farm talent.

Offensively, this year’s team continues to evolve, despite injury and adversity. Third baseman Alex Bregman, just in his second year, not only made the All-Star team but was the game’s MVP.

World Series MVP George Springer has been mired in a slump that saw his batting average drop some 30 points in the three weeks leading up to the All-Star break, but first baseman Yuli Gurriel has stepped up with clutch at bats.

All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa has been on the disabled list since late June and should return to the starting line up in early August, just in time for the stretch run. Meanwhile, outfielder Josh Reddick has come through with key hits at opportune times.

Outfielder Tony Kemp has shown the ability to hit consistently and adds an extra element of speed at the bottom of the order. And at the end of the day, AL MVP Jose Altuve continues to be the most consistent offensive weapon in baseball.

Put all the ingredients together and you have an Astros team poised to play its best baseball over the second half of the season, heading into the playoffs. Are they better than last year’s champions? Springer offered his opinion.

“I think we are,” Springer said. “But in today’s age, everybody bases that on a result. If we accomplish our goal, then yes. But I think on paper, yeah, we’re a very, very similar team, but we’re more experienced, which makes us a lot better.”