Breaking down the AL wild-card field, slumping Astros included

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Very late in the 2006 season -- it might've even been the final weekend -- I bumped into a couple of scouts at an airport, at a time when the evaluators were in the midst of preparation for the postseason, and picked their brains about what they had seen.

They worked for different teams, but the scouts agreed that even if the Cardinals managed to crawl into the playoffs, they would have absolutely no chance to do any damage in October because they were playing so badly.

The scouts agreed that the Cardinals looked exhausted, and one of them added a prediction: If St. Louis won a single game in the postseason, he said, he would be shocked.

A month later, the Cardinals dogpiled on their home field in St. Louis after Adam Wainwright struck out Brandon Inge for the final out of the World Series.

The lesson learned from the '06 Cardinals team -- which won only 83 games in the regular season -- is that all players and teams are capable of extraordinary feats in small samples. As such, we cannot write off the 2015 Houston Astros, who look exhausted, who have young players such as Carlos Correa going through a 162-game grind for the first time and also dealing with pennant-race pressure for the first time. The Astros have been obliterated in Texas over the past three nights and have fallen out of first place, having failed to win back-to-back games since Aug. 25-26.

They might recover.

But their collapse has created enormous opportunity for the teams chasing them … if any of those flawed teams can seize the moment.

For the sake of context: According to FanGraphs, Houston's chances of winning the AL West are 39.2 percent, of ending up in a wild-card spot are 39.2 percent, and of reaching the postseason are 78.5 percent. The Astros appear to have the softest remaining schedule -- on your screen, anyway -- with a nine-game homestand starting Friday, and a bunch of games left against noncontenders Oakland, Seattle and Arizona.

The Astros have a small window to get Carlos Gomez (intercostal strain) back, says manager A.J. Hinch.

Here's a look at the remaining wild-card field:

Minnesota Twins (16.3 percent chance to win a wild-card berth): Trevor Plouffe and Torii Hunter have been swinging the bat well, but the Twins could use a late surge by Brian Dozier, who is in a deep slump, including just two homers since Aug. 15 and a .164 average this month. Most of all, however, they need more from their sagging rotation, which has struggled in the second half.

The Twins begin a four-game series today against the Angels and have seven games left against the Indians; both are also wild-card contenders.