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Series Preview: Houston Astros @ Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers have a chance to prove their playof worthiness with a pair of games against one of baseball’s best teams

Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Brewers are interrupting their important 7-game series against the Chicago Cubs with 2 games against what might again be the best team in baseball.

The Houston Astros may have a playoff spot (virtually) clinched already at a staggering 40 games over .500 (89-49), but they’re still in a race with the Yankees for the best record in the league (and with the Dodgers for home field advantage in a potential World Series rematch). While we all laugh at the complete mediocrity of the NL Central this year, we can be thankful the Brewers aren’t in the AL West, where the Oakland Athletics are 20 games over .500 and will be subjected to the randomness of the wildcard play-in game because they’re still 10 games behind the Astros.

Houston has built up an impressive +215 run differential this year and went out and got Zack Greinke at the trade deadline with eyes on a potential ALCS showdown with the Bronx Bombers.

They’re also a bit more healthy since the last time we saw them, with George Springer and Jose Altuve back in a lineup that might take Craig Counsell’s best September houdini magic to navigate over the next couple days. The Brewers are getting a bit of a break in that Carlos Correa will again miss this series, as he’s back on the Injured List with lower back stiffness. Some important arms will also be missing for the Astros out of the bullpen, with Ryan Pressly and Aaron Sanchez also both on the IL for this series. First baseman Yuli Gurriel is also dealing with an elbow contusion and was held out of Sunday’s game.

The Astros have plenty of depth to compensate, though, with 5 regulars hitting more than 20 homers so far this year (and two more sitting at 19) and 7 with an OPS north of .900 -- Gurriel, Altuve, Correa, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez and George Springer.

Houston’s bullpen is also quite good, although they carry less pressure than most other contenders due to the fact that the Astros are one of the few teams that have been able to actually ride an elite starting rotation for most of their games.

Probable Pitchers

Monday, September 2nd - 3:10 p.m. CDT
Gerrit Cole vs. Adrian Houser

We’ve seen Cole plenty as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but he’s been almost a completely different -- and more dominant -- pitcher since arriving in Houston. Subscribing to their groundbreaking theory of Tell Pitchers To Throw Their Best Pitches And Avoid Their Worst (similar to Derek Johnson’s teachings that allowed Wade Miley to break out), Cole has dropped Pittsburgh’s “fastballs should only be thrown low in the zone” mantra, started elevating his fastball while throwing his slider/cutter more, and virtually dropping the changeup Pittsburgh insisted he throw.

The result? A massive jump in his strikeout percentages (23.1% his last year in Pittsburgh, 34.5% his first year in Houston, and 37.9% this year), a likely pair of 6-WAR seasons, and a huge payday waiting for him this winter as a bonafide ace.

Tuesday, September 3rd - 6:40 p.m. CDT
Zack Greinke vs. Jordan Lyles

Our old friend doesn’t age. Greinke returns to Miller Park with his ERA for the season sitting at 2.99 and a FIP of 3.39. It feels weird to call a guy who won a Cy Young at the age of 25 a late bloomer, but it wasn’t until Greinke was 29 -- the year after the Brewers traded him to the Angels -- that he developed the kind of consistency he’s become known for.

He can’t throw in the upper 90s anymore, but that might have actually helped him become a better pitcher. Always studying with an uncanny memory, Greinke has excelled with Old Man Stuff, knowing precisely how to get just about every batter he faces out.

Greinke has allowed more baserunners and struck out fewer batters than he was in Arizona since the trade, but teams could do worse than a future Hall of Famer (and yes, with a career 3.36 ERA, a Cy Young, and closing in on 2600 strikeouts, he is a future Hall of Famer) as their #3 starter.

Previous Series

A split is within the realm of possibility because it’s happened before this season. The Brewers managed to split two games with the Astros in Houston back in mid-June to start the west coast road trip that seemed to throw the entire team in a funk.

After seeing a late-inning rally come up short in a wild 10-8 game, the Brewers won the second game 6-3 -- but needing 14 innings to do it. Houser actually pitched the last two innings of that game to pick up the win. This was the game where Justin Verlander (who just notched his third career no-hitter on Sunday) struck out 15 Brewers but gave up 3 runs on three solo homers (seemingly his only weakness this year) while Brandon Woodruff went toe-to-toe, also holding the Astros to 3 runs for 7 innings.

That win put the Brewers 10 games over .500, which has to this point been their high water mark of the season.

Player to Watch

Yordan Alvarez joined the big league roster in June just a day before the previous series with the Brewers started, and hasn’t stopped hitting since. In 65 games, the 22-year-old has hit .318/.416/.665 with 21 home runs and 19 doubles in just 236 at-bats, a pace that would put him at 52 home runs over 162 games.

Alvarez came to the Astros as part of a pretty non-descript August trade back in 2016, a one-for-one swap for reliever Josh Fields. Within a couple of years, Alvarez was making Top 100 prospect lists and Fields, while good for the Dodgers, probably wasn’t worth giving up a potentially elite power bat (in the Dodgers’ defense, their farm system is also so loaded that there wouldn’t be anywhere for him to play).

While largely being limited to DH in Houston, the Astros knew what kind of bat he had, slotting him in at 5th in their stacked batting order almost immediately and keeping him there or at cleanup ever since. He’s proved to be money in that spot, delivering 10 go-ahead hits in the 65 games he’s appeared in this year.

Of course, with this being an “NL rules” series, the Astros will have to decide whether Alvarez’s bat is worth sacrificing some defense. In their most recent series in an NL park (in St. Louis at the end of July), the Astros decided to put Alvarez in left field and shift Michael Brantley to right in the series finale. In the first two games of that series, Alvarez was on the bench while Brantley was in left and Josh Reddick started in right, with George Springer in center.

September Scoreboard Watching

- The Cubs (+3 on the Brewers) host two games against Seattle in Chicago
- The Phillies (+0.5 on the Brewers) begin a four-game series against the Reds in Cincinnati
- The Diamondbacks (0.5 GB of the Brewers) begin a three-game series at home against the Padres
- The Mets (1.5 GB of the Brewers) go to Washington for 3 of their most important games remaining

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference