CHICAGO -- The Houston Astros, a franchise that has never won a World Series, raced out of the gate this season and finished a 60-29 first half with a 19-1 thumping of the Toronto Blue Jays. They have been as many as 34 games over .500, the last after the games of July 28, and have held a lead as large as 18 games in the AL West.
Even after their recent 3-9 stretch, the Astros hold a 13-game lead in their division, own a run differential that completely supports their won-loss record and have a six-game bulge for the best record in the American League.
The regurgitative capsule of the Astros' season you just read are the most important facts you will encounter in this story. They, more than anything else, tell you where Houston resides in the MLB pecking order.
You always start with a question and if you're lucky, the answer becomes the story. Alas, sometimes the search only leads to more questions. With the Astros in town, that meant three days of pondering their potential postseason rotation, the issue that has dogged them for weeks.
At least for the moment, that issue has been shoved aside by the team's first prolonged struggles this season. The Astros slunk out of Chicago late Thursday, winless in three games there, their comet tails fizzling into dust. Just one night earlier, I wrote of the kind of malaise every team goes through during a season. After watching Houston drop three straight to the White Sox -- statistically the club with the worst current roster in baseball -- it's still not time to panic, but the vibe is off for a team with World Series aspirations, and the postseason only weeks away.
"We're not playing our best baseball," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "I don't think we can look too far ahead or not take ourselves seriously when it comes to how we're going to compete. Getting healthy and staying healthy is key."
The Astros' biggest current problem from a tangible standpoint is getting their roster healthy, and luckily it seems as if they have a good chance of being whole by the time postseason arrives. Aside from that, the rotation and its No. 25 post-All-Star-break rank in ERA is causing a lot of hand-wringing.
The Astros' lead in the AL West remains massive. Houston will win its division for the first time since Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio led the Astros to the NL Central crown in 2001. But if some forward momentum and a collective positive frame of mind isn't established over the next month or so, Houston will be in trouble, because in-season maneuvering has left its own roster in roughly the same talent neighborhood as the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees.
"Every team goes through these stretches," Hinch said. "This is really one of the first tough stretches where we had a couple of weeks where we haven't got the results we want. The reality is you've got to play baseball. We'll do it because we have a really good team."
The rotation remains the central topic, because whether or not it's true that the Astros needed a boost in that area for October, it's apparent that the clubhouse felt that it did. The challenge for everyone right now is to figure out how to keep that perceived problem from become a de facto problem.
"We've got to get our pitching on track," Hinch said. "With our team, it's specific. Getting our starting pitching on track and getting our bullpen slotted. We have the opportunity to worry about ourselves and try to get ourselves right and tighten up some of the things we haven't done well."
Whether or not this is what he intended, the heightened scrutiny over Houston's starting staff is a product of Keuchel's publicly expressed disappointment over the team's deadline inactivity.
It started well before that, at least externally. Rumors have been matching Houston with various starting pitchers thought to be on the trade market since last winter. Such a player looked like the missing piece on a championship roster. It seemed all but certain that something would happen.
One by one, the best options dried up. Oakland's Sonny Gray landed with the Yankees. The Cubs acquired Jose Quintana from the crosstown White Sox. Jaime Garcia went from the Braves to the Twins to the Yankees. Detroit's Justin Verlander, an Astros rumor that just won't die, remains a highly compensated Tiger who happens to have been dominant of late.
With that as the backdrop, Keuchel took to the mound with plenty of work to do on his own account. After a brilliant start to his season, he went on the disabled list in May because of a pinched nerve in his neck. Two months later, he was back in the Astros' rotation but his early season dominance remains missing.
That continued Tuesday against a White Sox lineup that entered the game with a collective .317 weighted on-base percentage (WOBA). But Keuchel's pitch count ran up to 90 by the end of the fourth and he was done, giving up eight runs and 10 hits. Keuchel finished with a game score of 9 -- the worst of his 140 career outings.
"Just not a great night for him," Hinch said. "I'm surprised any time he's not almost perfect. He's been so dominant for so many starts that when he's not particularly sharp, it's a little bit surprising. But he had a real injury, took a lot of time off, he's trying to find his rhythm and timing."
Over three starts since coming off the DL, Keuchel has now gone 0-2 with a 10.75 ERA and more walks than strikeouts.
"I had been really, really good before I went down," Keuchel said. "Been really, really bad the three starts since the DL. We'll get it right and get back to it."
One of the most fascinating things about watching a baseball game, or even a series of three games, is that you cannot necessarily believe what you see. The results are real enough but to interpret the meaning of those results you have to take a wide-lens approach, and even then you have to proceed with care.
Since the beginning of the 2015 season, Keuchel ranks 17th among all starting pitchers in WAR. Which is to say he's an established No. 1 starter. He's not in the ace tier, where you can only find the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer and, probably, Corey Kluber. Keuchel is solidly in the next tier, and when he's right, there aren't many better options for a Game 1 starter in a playoff series.
The mention of Kluber brings to mind another factor. Given the growing trend of postseason managers yanking nonelite starters as soon as they've cleared the lineup a couple of times and run into any sign of trouble, that might actually heighten the advantage of having an ace-type pitcher who can reliably navigate three or four times through the opposition, saving the wear-and-tear on the high-leverage relief staff. Keuchel, more than any other Astros starter, is built for that.
Over that past three years, only three starters have held opposing batters to a lower WOBA after the first two times through the order (minimum 500 batters faced): Kershaw, Kluber and David Price. After Keuchel comes Sale and Scherzer. This is the elite group.
Speaking of the past three years, Keuchel ranks 10th among all pitchers during that time with 31 outings with a game score of at least 65. He is 26-0 in those contests, which is to say that Keuchel has more games of pure dominance than the vast majority of big league starters, and when he has one, the offensively potent Astros do not lose.
But regardless of whether the Astros have made or will make a splashy rotation addition, Keuchel will remain the No. 1 starter. It all begins with him. Houston's chances in October are much more closely tied to Keuchel returning to form than whether or not the teams lands Verlander. That's what makes outings like the one in Chicago so worrisome.
"It's very frustrating," Keuchel said. "[Chicago's] a talented lineup, but it's a lineup I should have done some damage against."
But if the deadline didn't create the perception of the need for a starter, the circumstances since then have only fueled the chatter.
Part of that is the lackluster post-break rotation ERA and lack of consistency. There were the DL stays of Keuchel and Lance McCullers, whose early season performance made him look like Houston's answer for a No. 2 starter. McCullers started 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA and averaged 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings over his first 15 starts. But he was bombed in each of his past four outings before ending up on the disabled list. McCullers wasn't with the team in Chicago and the club has been reluctant to put a timetable on his return.
If McCullers can get healthy and recover his first-half performance, he's as tough a No. 2 as any Houston opponent can roll out. Just to compare him to the trade rumor guys:
And those numbers include McCullers' pre-DL funk. The Astros rolled up their fantastic record with him performing like an ace, and if they manifest their regular-season performance with an October run, it's probably going to include him returning to that level. With a one-two punch like that, it's arguable that any acquisition the Astros would have made would have had, at best, marginal impact. Good teams win because they have good players, not because they need good players. Perhaps that's why studies have shown that there is basically no correlation between trading for an ace pitcher at the deadline and winning the World Series.
One last thing about McCullers: Remember that bit about Keuchel's fine numbers working deep into games? McCullers has been dominant this season during his first two trips through an opposing order, holding hitters to a .273 WOBA that ranks 10th in baseball. After that, the number jumps to .404. He's a fit for that new model of postseason bullpen usage and that factor is what delineates Keuchel at No. 1 and McCullers at No. 2. After that, it becomes murkier, but luckily for the Astros, that's because they possess a number of solid options that happen to be tough to differentiate.
One of those is McHugh. A blessing in disguise for Hinch is that with Keuchel and McCullers out, there has been a good chance to cycle through other candidates for the postseason rotation, those being McHugh, Mike Fiers, Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock. Lost in all of the debate about the rotation was that the Astros did in fact add a rotation piece when McHugh was activated from the DL on July 22. He had been out since spring training because of posterior impingement of his right elbow.
McHugh's absence was no small thing. Among Houston starters from 2014 to '16, McHugh's 3.71 ERA ranked neck-and-neck with Fiers (3.74) for third on the staff behind Keuchel and McCullers. His start on Wednesday was only his fourth of the season, and in his two previous stats, McHugh gave up only two earned runs over 10 innings. It's a small sample but encouraging.
McHugh zipped through four scoreless innings against the White Sox but hung a slider to Tim Anderson for a two-run homer in the fifth. He made it through the Chicago order only once more, departing with one out in the fifth and seven runs on the board. Chicago won 7-1 to make it two straight over the powerful Astros.
"Escaped in the early innings, then settled in nicely," Hinch said, shrugging off McHugh's struggles. "Then he just lost his command. He got into some counts where he couldn't escape.
"A few mistakes midgame where he got burned. Not his night. His mechanics were fine. He just ran into some guys who put up good at-bats."
Afterward, the Houston clubhouse was quiet. The booming music from pregame was gone and the players sat around tables eating their share of the postgame spread in silence. McHugh talked about his inability to locate his slider or get the Sox to chase it. It's all part of the ups and downs of a 162-game season.
"I felt good the last couple outings," McHugh said. "I think my stuff has been good. My command has been pretty good. Today, it wasn't."
Just a malaise, I thought. Every team goes through it.
Game Three: Brad Peacock vs. Carlos Rodon
This should almost go without saying, but in a sports universe in which we so confidently tell teams what they should do, the fact of the matter is that teams know themselves better than we do. So the question for the Houston Astros is: How well do they know themselves? The Astros' accuracy in answering that question might well determine if Houston is to finally break through with its first World Series title this fall.
The outside perception of the Astros seems to be that the rotation is one frontline performer short of championship-caliber. The Houston front office, through its actions, or lack thereof, is saying that the need for a starter is not acute enough to meet the asking price of the marketplace.
On Thursday, Houston outfielder Josh Reddick went on the radio and echoed Keuchel's fading comments on the deadline, only this time attributing the funk to the whole team. His response was nuanced in that, just like Keuchel, he didn't call out a specific position group and he insisted that the team felt it could win with who is in the clubhouse.
Still, you have to wonder if the Astros are falling for what has in recent years become something of a trope around the deadline: Front offices must prove to their teams that they are committed, otherwise the wrong message is sent. Only, why isn't that construed as a vote of confidence for who is already around?
"I think the starting pitchers should take offense to it," Hinch said. "We roll guys out there that are trying to do exactly what everybody says they can't do or that we don't have. We don't spend a lot of time talking about what other people say about us. We have great chemistry, a great culture, a lot of pride. We have a ton of competitive guys.
"At the end of the season, we'll be able to know exactly what we are, what we were or where we're going."
Barring a blockbuster post-deadline trade, the Astros are what they are. The question now is simply whether Houston can win it all with the starting rotation as it's currently constructed. Right now, it's hard to see what things will look like in October.
"These guys are in different parts of their season, whether it's McHugh just starting out or Keuchel just coming off injury," Hinch said. "Peacock has been in and out of the rotation. Fiers has had a great run of success, but he's had to battle of late. Different names, different runs of success.
"With our offense, when you roll out quality start after quality start, you can go off on a run of 10 games."
Which brings us to Peacock, who has been around since 2013 and has bounced back and forth from the back of the rotation to the bullpen for Houston. Entering this season, he had a career 4.57 ERA in 263⅔ big league innings. Then he learned how to throw a slider.
According to fangraphs.com, Peacock ranks in the top 20 in pitch value this season with both his fastball and his slider, the latter a pitch he didn't even throw when he broke into the big leagues. He also has started to sink his hard stuff, and the results have been startling: Peacock is 10-1 with a 3.07 ERA. He was on his game in Chicago as well, holding the White Sox to a single run in 6⅓ innings.
Still, Peacock might be a longshot for the Houston postseason rotation for another reason. Like McCullers, he has been lights-out the first two times he has seen hitters this season, holding them to a .248 WOBA. Only four pitchers have been better: Sale, Alex Wood, Kershaw and James Paxton.
Why does that preclude a rotation spot? Well, Peacock has made half of his appearances this season out of the bullpen, posting a 1.77 ERA with a 1.03 WHIP in that role. Given that success and his ability to go multiple times through an order, he seems to be an ideal candidate to complement super-reliever Chris Devenski in the 2017 version of a playoff bullpen, soaking up those key innings in front of the back end of the bullpen.
Houston has that luxury because McHugh, Fiers and even Morton give Hinch other options. It's a pretty picture that does not scream for the addition of another subject.
Yet, the clubhouse doesn't feel right, and the mood was even more somber after Peacock's outing. That's because closer Ken Giles gave up a tying homer to Yoan Moncada in the ninth, then Moncada got his first career walk-off RBI in extra innings. Instead of Peacock providing the spark the Astros needed in the series finale, Houston left Chicago dealing with an unlikely sweep.
"We needed to find a way to win the game," Hinch said. "We're not in a great place right now. Obviously, we've had a tough trip to this city.
"We'll move on to the next city and get ourselves together."
Does Houston have an issue?
On paper, there is no issue. The healthy version of the Astros' roster was head and shoulders above the rest of the American League. You can argue that the gap has been closed by improvements in Cleveland, Boston and New York. But it's still a gap.
Nothing is guaranteed in playoff baseball, but the math is in Houston's favor, as it is for the best team in any league in any year. The offense is a record-setter, and opposing staffs have to contend with that. The pitching staff is deep and balanced.
All the pieces are in place. If the players recognize that, the Astros will be fine.
"We're getting beat up a little bit," Hinch said. "We've got to figure out ourselves before we really figure out what kind of situation we're in. I think the mentality of our team is strong enough.
"These games are taking a lot out of our guys. We're getting beat up, but we'll figure it out."