After 113 games of the 2015 season the Astros are 61-52 and have a 1-game lead in the division. In years past, the Astros' division standing looked something like this after 113 games:
2014: 22.5 games back
2013: 27 games back
2012: 30.5 games back
2011: 26.5 games back
2010: 16 games back
So you'd think I'd feel good about this. The last time the Astros led the division after 113 games was 2003, when they were also 61-52, and had a 2.5-game lead on the NL Central. At this point in the season in the past five years we've already been talking about next June's draft, college football, or English soccer. Honestly, we had been doing everything we can to not really think about the Astros.
But I don't feel good about this. The offense is scuffling. The bullpen is shaky. It just feels like the Astros are squandering opportunities to put this division - which, as a whole, is struggling.
Let's think back just a few weeks ago. The Astros had a six-game losing streak heading into the All-Star Break, we speculated that maybe the Astros were tired, having played 40 games in the previous 42 days, and just needed a few days off. That may have been part of it, because the Astros came out of the break guns hot, winning six of their first seven games and sweeping the Angels, ushering the Astros back into 1st place, where they have spent a total of 103 days this season.
Still, this - right now - doesn't feel like a 1st place team (and I know, feelings don't have much of a place in baseball analysis). They have been up four games five separate times this season, and have seen that lead slip away. Perhaps this fact makes you feel better about how resilient the team is, and that would be a valid emotion.
After having won five of six heading into a nine-game road trip at Arlington, Oakland, and San Francisco, I felt good. The Rangers, even after having drugged Cole Hamels into agreeing to a trade, BABIP'd Lance McCullers back to the minors - after the only bad start of his Major-League career - but the Astros came back in that game. In the past I would have turned the game off - my mantra was "Nobody should feel like a martyr watching their favorite team." Or I would have had to turn the game off, having destroyed the remote.
That game was followed up by a couple of 4-3 losses where the Astros played a game of seeing how many men they could leave on base. Then Luke Gregerson blew a game against Oakland to have Jed Lowrie win it in the 10th, and then the Astros got dominated a couple of times before Gregerson blew another game.
The Astros haven't outright won a road series since April 27-29, when they swept the Padres to improve to 14-17. Since that series, the Astros are 13-32 on the road, 8-26 in road games since June, and 4-16 in their last 20 road games. Thirteen of their road losses since the Padres series have been by one run.
I honestly have no idea what to make of this. But I do know that the playoffs are not guaranteed. I refuse to write off 2015 because it was unexpected. The idea that the Astros *could* (or, could not) miss the postseason because they can't win close games on the road infuriates me, and I refuse to be comforted because of a Sports Illustrated cover.
We - as a fanbase - have watched a lot of miserable baseball, from the Buttslide to the Blocked Bunt, games in which the Astros seemingly tried to find new ways to lose and embarrass themselves. While we haven't watched a Buttslide moment this season - if we have, I've blocked it out - being close and losing is somehow worse to me than getting embarrassed.
This is clearly a talented team. Carlos Correa is a legit superstar, to go along with Altuve, Springer, Keuchel. How the Astros still have a 1-game lead with the Astros running out Chris Carter and Luis Valbuena every game shows that nothing in the world makes sense and maybe it's an indicator of better times ahead.
If the Astros make it to the postseason I'll be surprised. Maybe that's the fatalism of the last four years. If they don't, I'll be more mad than I was about 111 losses. What's the point of this? In Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" Tomas and Tereza live in Prague at the beginning of the Soviet occupation of the 1960s. Tomas is a womanizer, living freely within his marriage; Tereza is jailed by the heaviness of her love for Tomas and is destroyed by his "lightness of being." The story goes on - obviously, because it's one of the greatest novels of all time - but in this stretched analogy, we are the Tereza, tortured by the Astros' flirting with disaster - hopeful that they will change - and their current unbearable lightness of being.