After latest loss, Astros look for ‘activate playoff mode’ switch to reach October

HOUSTON — September itself should usher in a heightened sense of urgency, but few in Houston’s clubhouse have ever required it. The Astros have spent recent Septembers sewing up seeding and prioritizing their postseason pitching plans with division titles already determined.

Twelve days ago, the second half of this September seemed destined to fall in line. The Astros finished a series win against the San Diego Padres and sat atop the American League West with a 2 1/2 game lead. Nine of their next 12 games were against the sport’s two worst teams — the Oakland A’s and Kansas City Royals.

Seizing advantage of such a luxury felt mandatory. The Astros decided against it. A chance to control their destiny is slipping away, the consequence of two confounding weeks with far-reaching ramifications.

“I don’t think anybody’s feeling pressure,” slugger Yordan Alvarez said through an interpreter. “We understand this division is going to go down to the last game of the season. Talking to some of the guys, tomorrow we’re going to have to flip that switch and activate playoff mode.”

As for why the Astros haven’t activated it already, Alvarez replied, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s one of those things that we didn’t feel it because we were in first place.”

Friday’s 7-5 loss against the Kansas City Royals remedied that. The Texas Rangers overtook Houston by a half game in the American League West. The Astros are clinging to the third American League wild-card spot by a half game over the Seattle Mariners, against whom they play a three-game series next week.

“It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating losing to teams that you say, ‘Come on, we’re the Astros, we shouldn’t be losing to them,’” starter Framber Valdez said through an interpreter. “But that’s baseball. It’s part of the game. It happens. But when we don’t get the results we want, the only thing we can do is continuing working hard, try to get the results that work for us after that.”

Valdez gave his team a four-run deficit before it took a swing. Catcher Martín Maldonado’s league-leading 12th passed ball eliminated Valdez’s strikeout of leadoff man Maikel Garcia. The next four Royals reached base, putting Houston’s offense in a position it’s been in far too frequently.

Houston’s starters have allowed 13 first-inning runs in its past nine games, forcing its lineup to always play from behind and magnifying its mistakes in clutch spots. The Astros scored five runs and struck five extra-base hits on Friday, but stranded nine base runners and finished 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position — exceeding the minuscule margin for error Valdez made for them.

“It’s a long season. We have won a lot of games from behind, games where we score first. I think it’s relative,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “Of course, we want to score first and get the momentum. Sometimes it happens.”

Friday reinforced what the rest of September has shown: Houston’s hopes for a playoff spot hinge almost solely on run production. Valdez’s six-run outing prolonged a pitiful run of starting pitching. Houston’s rotation has a 5.25 ERA in 19 September games — seven of which were, again, against the Royals and A’s. Its lineup is scoring 5.84 runs per game across that same span, not nearly enough to overcome the suspect starts.

Behind the rotation resides the worst defensive team Houston has fielded across the past seven years. It entered Friday worth just three defensive runs saved, according to Sports Info Solutions. Eighteen teams were worth more. Valdez’s inability to record an out on a fifth-inning sacrifice bunt and José Abreu’s eighth-inning error only furthered Houston’s futility.

“Very frustrating, very frustrating obviously,” Alvarez said. “We have a plan. We haven’t been able to get the results we want, but we can find an opening and this team can get through and leave these losses in the past.”

Astros DH Yordan Alvarez leans back to avoid a pitch against the Royals. (Leslie Plaza Johnson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If Houston must hit its way into the playoffs, Baker must deploy his most potent lineup across the next eight days. An injury to Alvarez could complicate that. After Friday’s game, the slugger revealed he “felt something” in his right elbow while swinging last week. As a result, Alvarez has not played left field since Sept. 13.

Before Friday’s game, Alvarez played catch in right field while head trainer Jeremiah Randall, outfield coach Gary Pettis and bench coach Joe Espada watched him. The four men huddled afterward for a brief conversation before Alvarez returned to Houston’s clubhouse. He did not participate in any other pregame activities on the field, though that itself is not unusual.

Michael Brantley was again unavailable for Friday’s game, too, with soreness in his surgically repaired shoulder. If Brantley and Alvarez are not able to play left field, playing rookie Yainer Diaz becomes difficult. Given the way Houston is pitching, that’s a massive problem.

Diaz and his 45 extra-base hits can make the Astros’ lineup one of the deepest in the sport. That Baker and his coaching staff haven’t found more creative ways to deploy him this season is mind-boggling, especially as Houston’s pitching continues to decline.

Barring a seismic shift in organizational thinking, Maldonado will catch Valdez and Justin Verlander, the two pitchers that Houston will want to start in the first two games of a potential playoff series. Cristian Javier is perhaps the most logical candidate to start a third game. Maldonado has caught 26 of his 29 starts, too.

Presuming Maldonado is in the lineup and Alvarez is at DH, Diaz is limited to either pinch hitting late in games or starting at first base in favor of Abreu. Astros coaches do not view Diaz as a defensive liability at first base, but some opposing scouts have questioned how adept Diaz is at the nuances of the position — like where to position himself during cutoffs or relays, for example. Similar questions exist about Diaz’s catching, despite some favorable public metrics.

Fundamentally sound teams fare best in October. Few know this better than the Astros, even if they haven’t shown themselves as one this month. Diaz is the better offensive player than Abreu, but it’s difficult to envision Baker weakening his infield defense — especially behind a groundball pitcher like Valdez — in such important games.

That he didn’t do it Friday may be evidence enough.

“You can’t think about it, you just have to come out tomorrow and do it,” Baker said. “You can’t cry over spilled milk. You can’t bring it back. It’s frustrating, very frustrating. The guys are a little frustrated, but we’re still in a good position. We’ll come back and get them tomorrow.”

Added Altuve: “(We need to) show up tomorrow with our best attitude, our best energy and try to score more runs than them.”

(Top photo of Astros pitcher Framber Valdez reacting after a play against the Royals: Troy Taormina / USA Today)

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