Hell Week has arrived for the Astros. At a time when its clutch hitting has withered to almost nothing and its starting pitching has hit a wall, Houston likely needs to go at least 4–2 this week against Seattle and Arizona to make the playoffs.

On the road.

Facing opposing starters Luis Castillo, George Kirby, Bryce Miller, Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly leading to the final day of the season.

Needing 40-year-old Justin Verlander to find a second wind while likely asking him to start two of the next five games.

Hell Week begins tonight with the Castillo-Verlander marquee matchup in Seattle. It’s not a must win for Houston, but darn close. With Texas holding a three-game advantage in the loss column for the division title, the Astros’ best path to October is a wild card. They lose tiebreakers against their two wild card rivals, the Blue Jays and Mariners. A 3–3 finish leaves the Astros with 88 wins, which means Toronto and Seattle would be in if they go no worse than 1–5 and 4–3, respectively.

What’s at stake for the Astros this week? Just the end of their mini-dynasty. The Astros have played in six straight American League Championship Series while w in this run.

Two weeks ago, the idea of Houston not even making the playoffs was unfathomable. Surging on a 10–4 run, they held a 2.5-game lead atop the AL West with 18 games to play, including half of them against the two worst teams in baseball, the Royals and A’s.

To make the playoffs, Houston will have to rely heavily upon Verlander in the final six games.

Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

That’s when—there is no polite way to put this, especially given how the schedule set up—the Astros collapsed. They are 3–9 over the past two weeks, including 2–7 against the Royals and A’s. Opposing starters entering those nine losses were a combined 38–68. Ouch.

What happened?

1. They stopped hitting in the clutch.

Since Sept. 11 the Astros have hit .164 with runners in scoring position (20-for-122). Only the Red Sox have been worse in this stretch.

Until then, Houston was hitting .281, third best in baseball. It makes no sense, especially for such a battle-tested group. It simply is a two-week, ice-cold spell at precisely the wrong time. But it is the biggest reason why they are in a fight to save the mini-dynasty.

2. They can’t win at home.

Another oddity. The Astros got swept at home last weekend by the Royals, a 102-loss outfit. The Astros finished their regular season at home with a losing record, 39–42, for the first time in nine years.

Here is a stat that does not bode well for them. Excepting the shortened seasons of 1981 and 2020, 464 teams have made the playoffs. Only one of those 464 playoff teams had a losing record at home: the 2001 Braves (40–41).

3. Their starting pitching hit a wall.

This is mostly about rookie Hunter Brown, and it was entirely predictable. The Astros have ridden Brown, 25, for 151.2 innings, a 43% increase over his previous high last season. In his last nine games Brown is 3–6 with an 8.44 ERA. His four-seam velocity in September is down 1.2 mph from where it was in June.

Manager Dusty Baker really has no choice but to skip Brown’s start in Arizona this weekend. He will likely go with J.P. France, Verlander and Cristian Javier.

Verlander has been better with four days rest (7–1) than with five or more (4–7), so that should not be a problem. But Verlander is 1–2 with a 5.19 ERA in four September starts. And there has been some attrition on his money pitch, the four-seamer.

Batters are slugging .592 against his fastball this month, the highest against the pitch in any month since August 2020. The pitch still grades out overall as an above average pitch (+9 run value), but well down from the crazy level of last year (+24). There is a 0.7 drop in velocity and a noticeable dip in its vertical ride.

Houston starters in this 3–9 stretch are 2–6 with a 5.54 ERA with only three quality starts.

4. They have been playing from behind.

The bullpen has been fine this month (3–2, 3.22). The problem is the Astros have not had many leads to protect. The Astros never had a lead in seven of their nine losses in this 3–9 stretch. Neither of those two blown games included a lead of more than two runs. The early deficits have put added pressure on the offense, and it is showing.

It’s not fair to label the entire month a collapse by Houston. It started this month 5–4 while moving from a first-place tie to that 2.5-game lead. No, this has been a two-week freefall accelerated by a sudden lack of big hits.

The AL pennant has gone through Houston six straight years. Five of the past six world champions either had to get through Houston or were the Astros themselves. You don’t count out a team with that kind of pedigree. But because they had so much trouble beating two teams with 210 combined losses, the Astros are on the brink of their window closing.

Hell Week begins with three games in Seattle, where the Mariners have the best pitching staff in baseball in their home park (3.44 ERA). It is a virtual playoff before the playoffs. It begins, most appropriately, with Verlander getting the ball.