By S. KOTIN
September is here, which means the playoff race in baseball is officially under way. With 29 games remaining, the Astros certainly have their work cut out for them… They sit 8 1/2 games behind the division-leading Rangers and 1 game out of the 2nd AL wild card spot. A tight wild card race coupled with a brutal September schedule will most definitely be a challenge for the Astros. Nevertheless, today the team is in a spot to make it’s second postseason since losing in the 2005 world series. Here are 5 things that must happen in September for the Astros to return to October baseball:
1. Dallas Keuchel must be perfect at home
The Astros have 2 homestands remaining in which every rotation pitcher will take the bump at the juice box. This is where there is little to no margin for error if the Astros are going to make a playoff push. That being said, Dallas Keuchel’s home starts this season (4-5, 3.60 ERA) have been the polar opposite of what we saw out of last year’s Cy Young worthy performance, where he went 15-0 and with an astounding 1.46 ERA at Minute Maid. If the Astros are going to make the post-season, they need 2015 Keuchel to show up, especially at home.
2. Someone hitting 5-9 must have a huge month
The Achilles heel of the 2016 Astros has been the lack of production from 5 through 9 in the batting order. While we’ve seen hot streaks come and go from the likes of Gattis, Valbuena, and Rasmus, it has not been enough to warrant any real perceived threat outside of the top of the line-up for the ‘Stros. With September call-ups on the way, more new faces will be stepping into the box in these 5-9 spots, and they simply have to be productive at-bats for the Astros to make some noise.
3. A.J. Reed must contribute
This guy sure did have a lot of buzz around him in March. Touted as a top prospect with size and power, A.J. Reed has been pretty underwhelming as an Astro… He’s hitting .171 with 41 K’s and is slugging .286. Yikes. It’s too early to call this guy the next Jon Singleton, but if he’s going to shake that stigma, he needs to start by having a big September. Astros fans need him to be a force in the lineup for this team to reach the postseason.
4. The other A.J. (Hinch) must also have a good September
I’ve been a pretty big fan of A.J. Hinch since he’s taken over as the ‘Stros manager. Hard not to be after he took a very young team to the club’s first postseason in 10 years. That being said, Hinch has definitely had less than stellar moments this season. Managing a September roster will be a challenge…this team is already very young. He’ll have to trot out a solid line-up that DOES yield production from the 5-9 holes, and manage his bullpen to perfection. Hinch must be a leader in the clubhouse and make winning decisions in the dugout if the Astros want to play October ball.
5. Ken Giles must own the closer role
Ken Giles probably saw his first season as an Astro going very differently when he arrived in Houston. Astros fans surely did. But after a very rocky start, Giles has managed to use his deadly fastball/slider combo to bring his inflated ERA down to a somewhat respectable 3.54, and is 6 for 6 in saves as the Astros closer. If the Astros are going to make it to the playoffs, Giles must continue to dominate on the mound in the 9th, ensuring that the Astros hold on to close games down the stretch.
Stephan Kotin is a life-long Astros fan co-founder of Houstonsportsandstuff.com