THE PALLILOG

Advancing in the tournament could come down to this for Coogs

Attacking the offensive glass will be critical. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Looking forward to the big Syracuse game Saturday night? Yes, I'm an Orangeman, so I will be ardently rooting for my alma mater as it plays the University of Houston in a Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game in Indianapolis. With a win the stupendous job Kelvin Sampson has done with the UH program ascends another level. Two tournaments ago it was the Coogs' first NCAA win in 34 years. The following season the Sweet 16. Last season, no tourney. This year a spot in the Elite Eight is within grasp.

To advance the Cougars will almost certainly have to play better than they did in surviving Rutgers last Sunday. Rutgers beat Syracuse early in the season, which means absolutely nothing. If possible, it would be less than nothing since first weekend tourney superstar Buddy Boeheim missed that game recuperating from coronavirus.

One big advantage for the Cougars

In a best of one format you never know what will play out how, but the one massive advantage UH has is attacking the offensive boards against a defensive rebounding challenged 2-3 zone playing SU. Strength of schedule played a role, but UH is the number one offensive rebounding percentage team in the nation. Syracuse in defensive rebounding percentage, number 331.

Meanwhile, no stunner if it doesn't happen, but Baylor should beat Villanova and then the winner of Arkansas-Oral Roberts(Oral Roberts!) to put the Bears in the Final Four for the first time since 1950.

Rebuilding Rockets

The NBA trade deadline passed Thursday afternoon with the Rockets trading Victor Oladipo to Miami for very little. It's not like he was worth much but from the Heat Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk are meaningless to the Rockets other than that their contracts are up after this season. The Rockets may gain a few spots in the 2022 Draft with the right to swap either theirs or Brooklyn's first round pick (part of the James Harden trade) for Miami's number one. The Rockets have repeatedly cheaped out over the last three years. After their long run of sustained quality, it could be longer than three years before they really matter again in the NBA.

Astros baseball is almost here!

With the state of the Rockets and the ongoing sordid Deshaun Watson mess, even more thankfully we're less than a week from the Astros starting their 2021 season. The other 29 Major League Baseball teams are scheduled to launch Thursday as well. The Astros have the makings of another good team. A team absolutely capable of reaching a third World Series in five years, though they start this season with more question marks than they've had since their run of excellence began in 2017. One of those question marks hit a personal jackpot Wednesday as Lance McCullers accepted a five-year 85 million dollar contract extension beyond the six and a half million he'll pull down this year.

If McCullers has a huge 2021 he would have been able to command more than 85 million as a free agent after the season, but he's wise to lock in guaranteed generational financial security because the "ifs" with him are gigantic. McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. He still has zero seasons on his resume in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. Prior to the blown out elbow and Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the whole 2019 season, McCullers has injured list stints with shoulder and back issues. It's not enough that "all McCullers has to do is stay healthy." When healthy McCullers home at Minute Maid Park overall has been spectacular. On the road overall he's been lousy. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. We assume the new contract will require him to pitch road games. And while McCullers is cemented in Astros' lore for his brilliant lockdown relief in 2017 American League Series Game Seven against the Yankees, his postseason record is spotty. As the starter in game seven of the World Series against the Dodgers he didn't make it out of the third inning. Last fall in ALCS game seven against the Rays he didn't last four innings.

McCullers is a fierce competitor and a solid guy involved in numerous good works away from the ballpark. In part because of his character the Astros place a big bet on how he'll hold up and how he'll pitch. With more than 67 million dollars in Verlander/Greinke salaries off the books after this season, they can afford it.

Yet to sign a contract extension is Carlos Correa. He arrived in "The Show" three weeks after McCullers and his career timeline makes him the obvious everyday player comp to Lance. Two guys who exploded onto the scene and have had phenomenal high points, but because of both injury and performance issues, overall their careers have been less than their flat out talent projected. Correa has had the clearly better career to this point, so barring a calamitous meltdown in 2021 the floor for a Correa deal is well north of 5/85. He reportedly rejected 6/120.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Let's Go Orange! But if isn't to be Syracuse in the Final Four, Eat 'Em Up Coogs!

2. Four #11 seeds have reached the Final Four (LSU, George Mason, VCU, Loyola-Chicago), no seed lower than 11 ever has. 12 Oregon St. and 15 Oral Roberts (Oral Roberts!) take their shots this weekend.

3. Greatest Houston Sports Sampsons, order changes if Coogs win Saturday and Monday: Bronze-Greg Silver-Kelvin Gold-Ralph

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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