Culture / Sporting Life

Friendly Foe Still Sees the Astros as World Series Worthy — Tony Kemp Marvels Over Chas McCormick and a Deeper Houston Lineup

Despite All the Home Weirdness and Strange Losses, Dusty Baker's Team Is Still Set Up to Rise to the Pressure Moments

BY // 09.13.23

After the Houston Astros’ first loss to the very bad Oakland A’s with in-his-prime ace Framber Valdez on the mound — not to be confused with their second loss to the very bad Oakland A’s with co-ace Justin Verlander pitching —  Kyle Tucker leaves the clubhouse wearing a plain black T-shirt with “talentless” written on it small white script.

These Astros are anything but talentless, of course. In fact, Dusty Baker’s squad of stars are such prime time performers that these games against the A’s of the world almost become more challenging. It can be hard for a team that won a championship to get up for games against the dredges of the league. Put Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Tucker in a super charged series against the Texas Rangers in Arlington and they’ll deliver absolute carnage, take your breath away.

Make it an unknown opener and JP Sears from the 99 loss Oakland A’s. . . and well, the results are a lot less predictable.

These Astros aren’t the only defending champion to ever look a little bored in September. The 2000 New York Yankees memorably tailspined through a 3-15 September stretch. And still completed a World Series three-peat that October. Two loses to the A’s isn’t anything close to a 3-15 spiral. And one familiar and still friendly observer in the other dugout is certain these Astros will be just fine.

“Oh yeah,” Tony Kemp says when I ask if the Astros look the same to him. “One through nine, there’s no breaks in their lineup. They have Chas McCormick hitting at the bottom of the lineup with 20 home runs. Obviously, their team’s very good. They have a deep bullpen and they have very good starting pitching.

“There’s a reason they have been to what — five or six straight ALCSes? That team never gives up.”

Justin Verlander is still an imposing figure as ever on the mound. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
JJustin Verlander is still an imposing figure on the mound. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kemp is the former Astro turned 31-year-old wise man for these beyond young A’s. He hits a home run off a Verlander slider on Tuesday night, one of the five dingers the usually run-challenged Oakland A’s have hit in the first two games of this series. The A’s are suddenly swinging easy, free of any playoff race stresses, any expectations, any burdens.

“Obviously, we’re not going to be in the playoffs,” Kemp says. “I guess our mentality is just to go out there and win. And ruin as many seasons as we can.”

These A’s aren’t going to be able to ruin the Astros’ season. Yes, Kemp and Co. have helped cut Houston’s lead in the American League West — and the all-important No. 2 seed and first round playoff bye that comes with that — to one game over the suddenly revitalized Texas Rangers. That’s not ideal.

And Verlander reminded the Astros of just that when he stood up and talked to the team after this latest loss. (The Astros suddenly lead the league in postgame meetings too.)

Yet, do you really have any doubts that this team will respond? Do you think Verlander does? This is what these champions do. They rise to any big moment, thrive when the pressure is turned up a little.

The back-to-back losses to one of the worst teams in baseball brings that urgency back. There are only 16 games left in the regular season and the Astros’ margin for error is dwindling.

“You don’t have any choice, you have to keep fighting,” Dusty Baker says. “That’s what this game is all about. That’s what this team is all about.”

Exactly. Do you really think Altuve, Bregman, Yordan, Tucker and Co. are going to let the Rangers, Mariners or Blue Jays steal the playoff seed they want? Yes, only three of the four teams between Houston, Texas, Seattle and Toronto will make the American League playoffs. But expecting the Astros to be the one left out is like expecting the New York Jets to be able to have nice things.

“Obviously, we’re not going to be in the playoffs. I guess our mentality is just to go out there and win. And ruin as many seasons as we can.” — former Astro and current Oakland A Tony Kemp

The Houston Astros’ Troubles at Home — an October Reprieve?

These Astros always answer the bell when it really counts. They’ll be there in October. Likely opening the playoffs at Minute Maid Park again. Then maybe, they can finally bring that Juice Box Magic back again. That’s truly been the frustrating part of a largely otherwise satisfying, injury-fighting title followup season. The Astros just can’t seem to take advantage of playing at home.

In front of some of the best — and most loyal — fans in all of sports. In what’s still one of the top eight ballparks in the Big Leagues.

After these back-to-back Oakland losses, the Astros are a mere .500 team (37-37) at Minute Maid Park. This after they went almost 30 games over .500 at home (55-26) just last season. With much of the same cast.

It’s one of the great mysteries of this baseball season, one that can’t be explained by the bogeyman batter’s eye debate. Especially considering the batter’s eye hasn’t changed in a few years and the Astros won at an impressive clip at home in 2022 and 2021.

With Astros fans turning out in force essentially all year — more than 2.78 million have shown with seven home games still remaining — it’s simply a disappointing mystery. One that’s threatened to rob some of the joy from one of the most joyful places in the entire city.

In the first game of Thursday afternoon’s doubleheader at Minute Maid Park. pinch hitter J.J. Matijevic scored Alex Bregman from third base with an infield single in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 walk-off win over the Yankees.
Astros fans still turn out in force at Minute Maid Park. For good reason. Jose Altuve and Co. remain the best show in town. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Of course, a nice playoff run at Minute Maid will make everyone forget about this sometimes oddly muted home regular season. When you’re playing for championships, October rules all.

It’s something that many teams can’t understand, simply will never understand.

A nice playoff run at Minute Maid will make everyone forget about this sometimes oddly muted home regular season. When you’re playing for championships, October rules all.

“We talked about trying to make a statement that we’ve obviously have gotten a lot more competitive since the beginning of the year,” Oakland manager Mark Kotsay says. “And we knew that we had 18 divisional games in front of us and this was part of our stretch and we wanted to go out here and compete. And win baseball games in our division.

“And also kind of use this as a test to see where we are going forward for next year.”

The A’s are forever playing for next year. The Astros are always playing for this October. That hasn’t changed. Tony Kemp can still see that, He marvels at how far his buddy Chas McCormick has come. Even as he shakes his head over the way McCormick robbed him of a seemingly sure hit with a great catch in the first game of this series. Wonders over how this Houston lineup can seem deeper than ever. He never doubts how dangerous, how championship capable, these Astros still are.

No smart man in baseball ever would.

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