MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Healthy, bolstered Astros gaining steam

Healthy, bolstered Astros gaining steam

To get Dallas Keuchel, Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. lined up and pitching well is what this final month of the regular season is all about for the Astros. That's why this week's three-game sweep of the Mariners could be so significant.

This baseball team has changed dramatically in the past week. First, there was the quick trip back home to assess its hurricane-ravaged city and to reset itself emotionally.

And then the Astros got better in very real ways. All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa returned Sunday after five weeks on the disabled list. McCullers, another All-Star, returned on Wednesday.

It wasn't just that the Astros finally resembled the team that was 58-27 on July 5 and had fought through one injury and had lost 19 of 30 at one point.

Houston has a chance to be better than ever with last week's additions of Verlander and outfielder Cameron Maybin, who hit a game-winning home run on Tuesday and another on Wednesday. How's that for an impact addition?

Must C: Maybin's go-ahead homer

Now the Astros' magic number to win the American League West is down to nine, and baseball's biggest stage is around the corner. They're close enough to see it and feel it and touch it.

"There's something about September," manager A.J. Hinch said. "Go around the game and talk to any manager of a team in contention. The energy level will pick up. The posture will get better. The sense of urgency raises a little bit. That has to play into it as well."

And it begins with the rotation. Keuchel and Verlander turned in dominant starts on Monday and Tuesday, and McCullers was more solid than the box score would indicate on Wednesday. Those three are capable of dominating a postseason series.

As general manager Jeff Luhnow said last week, "We know the postseason is a roll of the dice, but we feel pretty good about where we are."

That he should. Luhnow has positioned his team to win in October.

"Certainly, when you can enter the series with three big boys like that -- you get the first start from Verlander, the return of McCullers -- there's a lot of energy that comes with that," Hinch said. "We feel pretty good about any guy we put on the mound right now."

First, Keuchel. He allowed two earned runs in 7 2/3 innings on Monday in a 6-2 victory, a nearly flawless performance. Keuchel is the living, breathing definition of a No. 1 starter. The Astros are 14-5 when he takes the ball, and because of two stints on the DL, he should reach Game 1 of the AL Division Series with a reasonable workload.

That wasn't the case two years ago, when Keuchel led the AL with 232 innings during the regular season. He allowed just one earned run in 13 innings in two postseason turns, so the workload didn't seem to bother him.

In the end, though, fresher is better.

And there's Verlander. How many teams can line up two starters this good? OK, Cleveland, Washington, Arizona …

See? That's October baseball. There are no guarantees. Every team is capable of winning.

Let's say the Rangers get into the AL Wild Card Game. They have the potential to line up Cole Hamels, Andrew Cashner and Martin Perez.

Back to Verlander: He's a No. 1 regardless of where Hinch slots him. He has been that almost his entire career and is one of the pitchers to whom every other of this generation compares himself. Verlander held the Mariners to one run in six innings of a 3-1 victory on Tuesday. His fastball averaged 95.8 mph and ticked to 97 at times.

Verlander dazzles with Astros

Verlander has always prided himself on his last pitch of a start being his hardest, and that was the case -- with his 103rd hitting 99.1 mph. He had an 11-pitch at-bat against Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano in the first inning that was an instant classic. Cano fouled off six straight pitches before Verlander finally struck him out. Someday, they might revisit that one when both have a plaque in Cooperstown.

As for McCullers, he was the biggest question mark after a five-week stay on the DL with a cranky back. At his best, he's as good as anyone, and he was 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA when he made the AL All-Star team.

McCullers tried to pitch through the back issue for a while because Houston had three other starting pitchers on the DL. This time, the Astros were cautious in bringing him back, knowing they could win the AL West without him, but that he could be critical in the postseason.

McCullers was charged with three runs in 5 1/3 innings of a 5-3 victory on Wednesday, but what the Astros will remember is that he opened the game with five solid innings, allowing only a Kyle Seager home run.

"He's going to be key for us," Hinch said. "When we get him rolling and get him that sort of mojo and moxie, he can pitch. He can do a lot of damage."

That's true of the Astros as a whole.

As Hinch said, "I think in some ways we're showing ourselves we can win in a couple different ways. We're pitching, we're hitting, we're playing with some enthusiasm -- pretty good run."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.