Better late than never. For the first time since reaching (and being swept in) the 2005 World Series, the Houston Astros are playoff-bound. They were the last team to clinch a berth – on the final day of the regular season – and they are perhaps the most surprising postseason participant. But the Astros are dangerous because of their strong combination of run prevention and run production -- just ask the New York Yankees. Just how fascinating is this wild-card squad? Houston's leading home run hitter (260-pound DH Evan Gattis) finished tied for third in the majors with 11 triples.
Getty ImagesChristian Petersen
Astros: They have the power
Houston had five players with 20-plus homers: Evan Gattis (27), Luis Valbuena (25), Colby Rasmus (25), Chris Carter (24) and Carlos Correa (22). And seven other players (Carlos Gomez, George Springer, Jose Altuve, Preston Tucker, Marwin Gonzalez, Jason Castro, Hank Conger) finished in double digits. It’s not surprising that the team finished second in the majors with 230 homers (two behind the Toronto Blue Jays) and sixth in runs scored. Of course, relying on the three-run homer isn’t a sound strategy in October, but it doesn’t have to be because ….
Getty ImagesScott Halleran
Astros: They also have the speed
Most teams that slug like Houston earn the “beer-league softball team” reputation, and the Astros did lead the AL in strikeouts. But Houston also led the AL with 121 stolen bases. Instead of waiting around for the big hit, the Astros are more than capable of creating runs. Jose Altuve (38), Jake Marisnick (24), Carlos Gomez (17), George Springer (16) and Carlos Correa (14) all had double-digit steal totals this season. The opposition must focus on keeping the ball in the yard against Houston, but keeping the Astros off the bases all together is almost as important.
Getty ImagesBrad Mangin
Astros: The unheralded rotation
That the Astros finished second in the AL in rotation ERA probably would surprise many. Despite his strong Cy Young Award candidacy, his starting nod in July’s All-Star Game and his 20-win season, Dallas Keuchel still isn’t a household name … yet. But after two consecutive stellar seasons, he has earned ace status. Collin McHugh won 19 games (joining Keuchel and Lance McCullers with a sub 4.00 ERA), and Mike Fiers posted a 3.10 ERA and fired a no-hitter in his 10 games (nine starts) with the team. And then there’s deadline pickup Scott Kazmir, who has underwhelmed (2-6, 4.17 ERA in 13 starts) since joining Houston but who is a capable of dominating.
Getty ImagesRalph Freso
Astros: The little giant
Second baseman Jose Altuve – all 5-foot-6 of him – just logged his second consecutive 200-hit season. Although his stolen base totals dropped by 18 from last season when he led the AL, he also stole at least 35 bags for the fourth consecutive season and again led the AL. As the leadoff man, Altuve’s .353 on-base percentage and speed are key for a team that scores in bunches. His newfound power also doesn’t hurt; Altuve had 21 career homers in his first four seasons but a career-best 15 this season.
Getty ImagesRalph Freso
Astros: The superstar rookie
Much was expected from Carlos Correa when he debuted in early June, and the shortstop certainly didn’t disappoint. Correa homered in his second major-league game and never looked back, finishing with 22 homers, 68 RBI, 14 stolen bases, 52 runs and .512 slugging percentage in 99 games. And while he isn’t as gifted defensively as Cleveland Indians rookie shortstop Francisco Lindor, Correa is more than adequate with the glove. He has thrived as the Astros’ No. 3 hitter and given his demeanor and performance in the past four months, is unlikely to allow the October pressure to faze him.
Getty ImagesBob Levey
Astros: A rested bullpen
Houston’s relief corps ranked among the majors’ best for most of the season, before a complete meltdown in September. But having played just one game since Monday, the relievers have had a chance to rest their arms a bit. What was a strength for five months of the regular season could be again in October -- it certainly was in the AL Wild Card Game. Closer Luke Gregerson’s 31 saves weren’t flukes, and his veteran setup crew has a chance to hit the reset button.