The dog days of dominance: Astros continue summer struggle

CHICAGO -- If this is what rock-bottom looks like for a historically good team, the Houston Astros are in fine fettle as the 2017 season edges toward its stretch run.

The bad news was Houston's listless 7-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday, just one night after an 8-5 defeat to the team that currently has the worst roster in baseball. That's an objective statement; according to the roster value metric I track, the White Sox's group has the profile of a 57-win team. The Astros, who have owned a double-digit lead in the American League West since before Memorial Day, have lost to the rebuilders by a combined 15-6 tally the past two nights.

Taking this back further, the Astros have lost nine of their past 13 games dating to July 26. Since the All-Star break, Houston is just 11-13 with a 5.52 ERA that is the second-worst in baseball. Is it time to panic? Of course not. The Astros' lead in the division at the break was 16.5 games; it's now 13. That's the beauty of a dominant -- if unsustainable -- start.

"We have the opportunity to worry about ourselves," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said before the game. "And try to get ourselves right with some of the things we haven't done well."

Still, the Astros might want to start reminding everyone why the baseball world has been so ga-ga over them all season. After the Boston Red Sox's 8-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday, the Red Sox are just 6.5 games behind the Astros for the best record in the league. That designation carries the home-field advantage that would come with the top seed if the clubs were to meet in the AL Championship Series. Ah, the ALCS. That seems far enough away to almost feel abstract. In reality, that series is barely two months away, with a Game 1 start date of Oct. 13 -- a Friday.

"The games need to be played," Hinch said. "We need more wins in order to build momentum about what can possibly happen with the next month and into October. I think the challenge is just keeping everybody's energy up and staying healthy and playing good baseball."

Every team goes through a rough couple of weeks during the long, 162-game slog of the regular season. Every team. Yes, even that one. Check the logs: The Los Angeles Dodgers went 6-10 during a stretch in April. Then, the day after that downturn, they called up Cody Bellinger. It worked out fine.

The Astros can't call up anybody of that caliber, but, in a way, they have just as big a jolt in store for the weeks to come. Which brings us to another metric I track through the season: the WAR value of players on the disabled list. Before Wednesday's game, the Astros led the majors with 20.2 missing WAR. Happily for Houston, that number went down Wednesday because center fielder George Springer was activated from the DL.

"I had an extremely positive day yesterday," Springer said of the timing of his return. "I am ready to go, and I'm excited about it. I feel good. I feel normal. I'm glad to be back. It's tough just sitting around."

Springer, who is hitting .310 with 27 homers all hit from the leadoff spot, had been out since July 24 with a wounded quad. Just writing his name on the lineup card gave Hinch a boost.

"It's nice to get him back," Hinch said. "He provides such a big spark for us. He's such a stable part of our team in so many ways. Top of the order, setting the tone at the beginning of the game tonight. His production has been incredible."

Then Springer led off the game with a single, and the hit parade was on again. Except it wasn't. Now is the time of the Astros' malaise, the ennui stemming from the adolescence of a triumphant season. It happened to the Dodgers. It happened last season to the Chicago Cubs. It happens to everyone. No one is spared.

The Houston offense, which even during this post-break downturn has posted the best OPS in the majors, managed only five hits and Derek Fisher's solo homer off of White Sox starter Miguel Gonzalez. That bit of news is eyebrow-raising, if non-predictive, simply because of the consistent dominance of the Astros' attack. Plus, Gonzalez is more or less a journeyman.

"[Gonzalez] is kind of the definition of pitcher," Hinch said afterward. "He uses all his stuff. Doesn't miss in the middle. When we did hit the ball hard, they made some pretty good plays."

Meanwhile, Collin McHugh struggled with his slider in just his fourth start of the season. He missed most of the first four months of the campaign with elbow trouble. His results had been pretty good, especially in relation to his rotation mates, until Wednesday's outing. He hung a slider to Tim Anderson for a fifth-inning homer, and after four sharp frames, his outing came unraveled.

"The slider, I didn't have any command of it all day," McHugh said. "Hung one too many to Anderson. Got away with a couple before that."

This happened after a poor outing Tuesday from staff ace Dallas Keuchel, who is still searching for his command three starts into his own return from the DL. No. 2 starter Lance McCullers Jr. has been on the DL since the end of July with back trouble. Only seven of Houston's 24 games since the break have resulted in quality starts, even though Charlie Morton, Mike Fiers and Brad Peacock have all had their moments.

That jolt I wrote of would be the eventual return of franchise shortstop Carlos Correa, who is out with an injured thumb, but that isn't like to happen for a few weeks. In the meantime, the Astros have work to do. They need to put a bow on the AL West, which, barring something out of the Twilight Zone, remains a foregone conclusion. They need to lock down that top seed, and if that buffer continues to shrink, that might not happen until well into September.

More than anything, the Astros just need to ride out the turbulence. The offense, even without Springer and Correa, has remained potent. The pitching staff should level out as its health improves. The rotation needs to restore faith and do so in time to allow Hinch a chance to line things up for October.

"The league will push us enough," Hinch said. "We're not playing our best baseball right now. I don't think we can look too far ahead or not take ourselves very seriously when it comes to how we're going to compete. Getting healthy and staying healthy is key, and we've got to get our pitching on track."

Nine losses in 13 games for a team that's 29 games over .500? That's nothing. It's a blip. A little malaise. But the thing about malaise is that everyone feels a lot better when it's over.

"Regardless of external expectations and talk, we haven't done anything yet," Hinch said. "Our guys know that."