Smith: Weird season nears dividing point for Astros

Nothing has come easy this season.

For Dusty Baker.

For Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers Jr. and Justin Verlander.

For the 2020 Astros, after an offseason that forever changed the franchise and the shining perfection of 2017.

When McCullers returned to the mound Wednesday night inside Minute Maid Park, just 12 games remained for Baker’s healing crew during a 60-game MLB season that has raced by and dragged at the same time.

Which means the 2020 Astros — still vilified nationally, still cheered and supported locally — have 11 games left to get right before the end of September arrives.

Rangers 1-0 on Wednesday was another setback, with the consistently uneven Astros (24-25) again falling below .500 as October draws near.

Thanks to friendly commissioner Rob Manfred, a team playing without Yordan Alvarez, Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski and Verlander — more on the 2019 American League Cy Young winner in a moment — still has an excellent shot to make the expanded playoffs.

Actually, excellent is an understatement.

Despite a 3-7 mark in their last 10 games, the Astros entered Wednesday’s play with a 97.3 percent chance to qualify for the postseason for the fifth time in six years.

That percentage seems a little high considering the third-place Seattle Mariners (22-26) were just two games behind the Astros before Wednesday’s games.

The only way these Astros make a serious dent this October? They get right just in time for a three-game wild-card series in someone else’s ballpark. At this time, the team that leads the Astros by 6½ games in the AL West was set to host that brief series inside the rickety ol’ Oakland Coliseum.

Thanks to the bad Rangers, disappointing Arizona Diamondbacks, below-average Mariners and bad Rangers (again), the Astros finally have a perfect platform upon which to create stability. Add in Jose Urquidy’s strong Tuesday start and the returns of Altuve and McCullers, and postseason optimism could start to become a thing around here again.

If, that is, the Astros can stay healthy for two weeks and finally start winning more than they lose during a 60-game MLB season that has helped define the chaos in our country in 2020.

“Don’t forget Urquidy. It was big getting him back,” Baker said before Wednesday’s game. “He’s looked really, really sharp. … Slowly but surely, I hope we don’t run out of time to get these guys back and in tip-top shape. I’d rather have them back at the last minute than with no time. It’s big. It’s big for the confidence of this club. Then you can put other guys in a situation in an area where they can help us, especially in the bullpen. That would be great to get these guys back.”

No offense to Altuve and McCullers. But Verlander is the undisputed difference-maker right now. The Astros’ 37-year-old ace also captures the divide this team is currently at.

Add real heat before the wild-card series starts Sept. 29, and the Astros could do damage in October. Anything — and I mean anything — can happen in a three-game series. Especially with cardboard cutouts screaming in silence for the home team.

But if it’s still the beat-up Astros trotting out a watered-down rotation backed by a highly unpredictable and inexperienced bullpen?

Zack Greinke — who has struggled in September, posting a 1-2 mark with an eerie 6.35 ERA and 1.35 WHIP — would be Baker’s best hope on the mound. And even if the Astros made it out of the wild-card round, they would face three more potential rounds as the on-field underdog.

“Any Verlander is better than no Verlander,” said Baker, summing up the extended wait on season-changing good news regarding a power righthander with a 226-129 career record and 3.33 ERA.

Verlander owning the mound again in the playoffs would create the electricity these Astros have lacked all season.

If No. 35 doesn’t officially throw a baseball again this season — he’s still stuck at 1-0 with three hits allowed, two runs and seven strikeouts in six innings — we’ll probably know soon enough that 2020 was never going to be the Astros’ year.

The divide is coming.

Time is running out.

It hasn’t been this hard to believe in the October power of the Astros since 2016, and that season has nothing on the craziness of ’20.

If the Astros are going to make a new name for themselves this year, their September turnaround must start now.

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