The Pallilog

After finally dispatching Rays, Astros get long anticipated showdown with Yankees

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It wasn't inevitable, but an Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series was the most likely pairing and most anticipated matchup in the AL playoffs. We get the payoff starting Saturday night. More on it a couple of paragraphs down. But first…

Credit to the Rays for pushing the Astros the distance in the Division Series. Ultimately, more credit to the Astros for their championship caliber response with their previously mostly dormant offense exploding for four runs in the bottom of the first of Thursday night's decisive game five. That was more than enough for Gerrit Cole who was overpowering and brilliant in both his starts in the series.

There have been postseason series pitching performances that go down as greater than Cole's but only in best of seven series. For one pitcher to so dominate a best of five? The top challenger that comes to mind there victimized the Astros. In a 1998 NLDS Kevin Brown throttled them twice. In game one Brown threw eight innings of two hit 16 strikeout shutout ball, then on three days rest he pitched into the seventh inning giving up just one run. The Padres won both games 2-1. Brown gets bonus points for snuffing an Astros' 1998 offense which was tremendous, vastly superior to the Rays' offense Cole destroyed. On the other hand, Brown didn't start a game with his team facing elimination.

The clear on paper edge for the Astros over the Yankees is in starting pitching. The Rays pushing them five means neither Cole nor Justin Verlander goes in the series opener Saturday night. Zack Greinke was a disaster in his start at St. Petersburg. While it's not redemption he pitches for in game one the Astros could really use him to pitch at least decently. The Yankees are going to score runs. Their lineup is spectacularly deep, power laden top to bottom even more so than the Astros' lineup, and patient. Pitch counts in Cole's and Verlander's starts loom important. The Yankees rate the clear edge out of the bullpen, it's better and deeper.

If it is to be a seven game series, Greinke going in game one works out fine for the Astros. It's highly unlikely the Astros again use a starting pitcher on three days rest, so Greinke sets up for games one and five, Verlander for games two and six, and if the Astros have another winner takes all game coming, Gerrit Cole would start it again, at Minute Maid Park again, after he goes in game three at Yankee Stadium.

Two years ago in the ALCS between these two the home team won all seven games. That is unlikely to happen again, but a reprise of Astros in seven seems a quite viable guess/prediction. From the 1920s forward, the Yankees have gone no decade without reaching at least one World Series. The Astros can snap that near 100 years run over the next week and a half.

With the Dodgers out in the National League some will talk of Astros-Yankees as the de facto World Series. That of course is stupid. Whoever wins the NLCS between the Nationals and Cardinals will obviously be capable of winning, but the AL Champ will be the rightful favorite.

Texans can make a statement

After five games we really have no idea what to make of the 3-2 Texans. A phenomenal offensive showing against the Falcons last Sunday came just one week after a pitiful offensive showing against the Panthers the week before. The Falcons stink. The components of Texans' offense are really promising. A healthy Will Fuller not dropping balls makes him more dangerous to defenses than DeAndre Hopkins. The offensive line will probably continue its ups and downs, but starting rookie first and second round picks means the up percentage should grow as the season goes along. Overpaying in draft picks for Laremy Tunsil is problematic down the road, but he is a vast upgrade anchoring Deshaun Watson's blind side.

Excellence requires consistency. We should have a better grasp of what the 2019 Texans might be after these next two Sundays as they play at Kansas City and Indianapolis. This past Sunday night the Colts largely shutdown the Chiefs' usually sensational offense and did so with a banged up defense. Patrick Mahomes was gimpy and mortal looking. Splitting these two games would be fine, if you had your pick the Colts game should be the choice since it's a division game. If somehow the Texans win both to be 5-2, they become the lead horse in the race in the race for the second AFC first round playoff bye. Losing both is more likely than winning both.

Buzzer beaters

1. Who knows how the game will go but Texas +11 is the side to play vs. OU. 2. Lock of the weekend: Daryl Morey goes this weekend Tweet-less. 3. Greatest single series pitching performances since 1980: Bronze-Mike Scott 1986 NLCS Silver-Madison Bumgarner 2014 World Series Gold-Randy Johnson 2001 World Series

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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