The 2023 AL West race is going down to the wire. The Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners are neck-and-neck in pursuit of the division crown. The Astros are favored to win the AL West, and they could potentially pull away from the Rangers and Mariners if one Houston player finally meets his preseason expectations.

As the reigning World Series champions, the Astros entered the 2023 season as the clear favorites to win the AL West. It's what Houston has done in each of the last five 162-game seasons. The Rangers have threatened the Astros with the American League's No. 1 offense. MLB's lowest ERA has allowed the Mariners to challenge the Astros with just weeks left until the playoffs.

Houston has a top-five offense in baseball. The Astros can't ask for much more from their best hitters. Kyle Tucker leads the team in batting average, home runs, RBI and on-base percentage. Alex Bregman has the highest WAR of any Houston position player. Yordan Alvarez is flirting with a 1.000 OPS for the season. Jose Altuve has done the same since the All-Star break.

The Astros' pitching staff, particularly the rotation, hasn't been quite as good. It's prevented Houston from pulling away from the Rangers and Mariners. Seattle (3.82 ERA) and Texas (3.87 ERA) both have top-five rotations in the AL. The Astros rank in the middle of the pack with a 4.14 ERA from their starting pitchers.

Framber Valdez has been the Astros' ace and has been favored to win the 2023 AL Cy Young at various points during the season. JP France has the second-best ERA in the rotation. Justin Verlander has been solid overall since returning in a trade with the New York Mets. Hunter Brown has struggled mightily in the second half, posting an ERA north of 6.00 since the start of July. Brown only made two major league starts before this season and shouldn't be relied upon as anything more than a No. 5 starter during his rookie campaign.

Cristian Javier has been the biggest disappointment for the Astros in 2023. Javier seemed primed to contend for the AL Cy Young award this season. Instead, he's taken a significant step back and been the weak link of Houston's rotation.

Cristian Javier must step up for the Astros in the AL West race with the Rangers and Mariners

Despite Brown's monthlong stretch of poor pitching, the rookie doesn't have the worst ERA in the Astros' rotation. That distinction belongs to Javier and his 4.78 ERA. The 26-year-old hasn't exactly been awful. Consistently mediocre might best describe his 2023 season.

Javier's last start was a microcosm of what he's done all year. The right-hander allowed four runs in just four innings against the San Diego Padres. Javier avoided taking the loss, and the Astros mounted a comeback to defeat the Padres 7-5.

Javier has pitched more than six innings in just one of his 27 starts. He's been limited to five innings or fewer in 11 of his last 15 starts. Javier has only surrendered more than six runs in two starts this season. He's also given up at least three runs on 16 occasions. The end result has been an ERA that's approaching 5.00 and a respectable 9-3 record, thanks in large part to the Astros' offense and bullpen.

There is plenty of evidence that Javier can pitch much better for Houston down the stretch. The right-hander had a 2.76 ERA in May and June. In each of his first three MLB seasons, Javier never posted an ERA north of 3.55.

The 2022 season saw Javier emerge as a star. It wasn't only that he posted a 2.54 ERA with a 0.95 WHIP and 194 strikeouts in 148.2 innings. Javier was utterly dominant during Houston's most important games. He was the Astros' best pitcher when they pursued the No. 1 seed in the final month of the 2022 regular season, and he didn't lose a step during Houston's World Series championship run.

Javier gave up exactly zero runs and no more than two hits in each of his final four starts last season. Javier shut out the New York Yankees over 5.1 innings in Game 3 of the ALCS, essentially putting the series on ice. With the Philadelphia Phillies looking to take a commanding 3-1 series lead in the Fall Classic, Javier was remarkable in six no-hit innings on the road. It sparked a three-game winning streak that allowed the Astros to claim their second title since 2017.

If Javier goes on a similar run to end the 2023 season, it should be enough for the Astros to hold off the Rangers and Mariners.

Javier is scheduled to face the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles in his next two starts. He's in line to take the mound when the Astros visit the Mariners for their second-to-last series of the season.