The Houston Astros shifted to the American League for the 2013 season after spending the first 51 years of their existence in the Senior Circuit.
Don’t know about you, but it’s probably going to take this semi old-timer another few years to remember that they’re an AL club on first reference.
To this child of the ’70s, they’re still the Astros of Jose Cruz and J.R. Richard, of the eighth wonder of the world and Astroturf, and especially the Astros of the gaudy/gorgeous rainbow jerseys.
Taking nostalgia and faulty memories out of it, however, there’s something else we should be calling the Astros besides a product of another time.
A genuine rival.
And considering the recent past, the current moment, and what the future hints that it will bring, we might just start considering them the chief rival to the Red Sox.
No, it is not a traditional rivalry, not yet. There is not a haunted house’s worth of ghosts to exorcise like there was with the Yankees through generations, right up until the catharsis in October 2004.
The Astros have spent seven years in the American League. They have more long-term history with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Reds.
“But there is definitely something building here,’’ said Astros manager A.J. Hinch before Saturday night’s game against the Red Sox. “These are two very, very good teams with a knack for playing tight games. And we’ve already interfered with each other’s plans the last couple of years.’’
Hinch, who became the Astros’ manager in 2015 and has led Houston to two of the three 100-win seasons in franchise history and the 2017 World Series title, is correct on both counts.
The teams do tend to play tight, taut games against each other. Nine of their last 18 regular-season meetings entering Saturday had been decided by one run. Another three had been decided by two runs.
That includes Friday night’s opener of this series, a 3-1 Astros win in which Red Sox starter Rick Porcello was brilliant for seven innings but gave up a two-run home run to Astros slugger George Springer in the eighth. The victory, Houston’s ninth in a row, felt about as significant as a ballgame in May can.
Two years ago, the Astros ended the Red Sox’ season, beating them in four games in a Division Series matchup. The Red Sox gained some payback last year, wiping out the Astros in five in the ALCS. Both teams celebrated their clinching victories on each other’s home turf.
The Astros are a measuring stick for the Red Sox, and vice versa.
“Sure, we have respect for them,’’ said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, “but it definitely feels like a rivalry. There is a little extra fun in winning here [at Fenway]. Two years ago, we took what they wanted. They did it to us last year. We both want the same thing.’’
The Astros, on account of navigating April with far less turbulence than the Red Sox, have an easier degree of difficulty in the quest to play meaningful baseball in October.
They improved to 30-15 with Friday’s win, tying their ’17 champs for the best 45-game start in franchise history. The Dodgers are the only other team with 30 wins this season.
The Red Sox, after starting 2-8, entered Saturday night 23-21, which put them in third place in the AL East.
It was a long climb back, but they’ve resembled their dynamic 2018 edition for weeks now, especially offensively.
Christian Vázquez sets a new career high with his 6th home run of the season! pic.twitter.com/1KNO5t2Hge
— Boston Red Sox (@RedSox) May 19, 2019
The only team that’s been as productive at the plate lately? Right: The Astros. This series features seven players hitting over .300; four are from Houston, three from Boston. Astros and Red Sox players have nine of the top 25 on-base percentages in the AL, with Springer (second in the league, .402) and J.D. Martinez (third, .401) leading their respective teams. Martinez, famously cast off by the Astros after the 2013 season, had homers in five of his last eight games.
Since April 29, the Astros lead baseball with a .765 winning percentage. The Red Sox are tied for second at .750. Both have plus-61 run differentials in that span. The Astros lead the majors with an average of 6.94 runs per game in that stretch. The Red Sox are right behind them, second at 6.82.
While the Red Sox have the most relevant recent bragging rights with that 2018 World Series banner, the Astros entered Saturday having won six of the last eight regular-season meetings at Fenway.
The rivalry might be new, but the matchup feels meaningful every time the Red Sox and Astros play, even in May.
Maybe it’s a hunch, maybe it’s common sense, but it sure seems like these teams will have some serious matters to settle in October once again.