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

Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan

What a week.The Rockets look terrible in losing consecutive games to losing teams, and that doesn't register as the tiniest ripple in the week's pond of Houston sports woe. Pond? More like ocean.

The Astros are irrefutably confirmed for all-time as cheaters and liars over a multi-season period. Jim Crane is no idiot, but specifically on the issue of whether the Astros' 2017 World Series championship is tainted, Jim Crane is an idiot if he really thinks it is not. Astro lackeys, toadies, and homers should stop the "a bunch of other teams did it too!" and "Mike Fiers is an a-hole" lameness. The Astros were guilty, caught, and deserved to get hammered. If/when others are proven as guilty as the Astros, so should they be hammered.

So after Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred's lowering of a rightful boom, and then Jim Crane firing Jeff Luhnow and A.J. Hinch, what does it all mean for the 2020 Astros? It's a wow of a story, but really not a crisis. The loss of Gerrit Cole is much more meaningful. Luhnow's shoes are fairly easily filled for this season. Hence for now, Crane himself will head up baseball operations. The Astros weren't and aren't pursuing any meaningful free agents or major trades. Before his demise Luhnow finished the financial corner cutting moves that filled out the roster.

It's not as if Luhnow's personal expertise made all scouting, drafting, and signing decisions. And now the Astros have no first or second round pick to make this June anyway. 30 year old Pete Putila is the ranking baseball guy still employed by the club, but he is a branch of the Luhnow tree. If Crane's goal is the "housecleaning" he termed the Luhnow and Hinch firings as being, how can he promote a Luhnow lieutenant? Every front office in baseball has shrewd analytic minds, looking to move up. Crane can easily hire one of them.

As for field manager, Hinch was a great handler of people (well….with one kind of important exception) but this roster is strong enough to operate on autopilot to a good extent. Bench coach Joe Espada is highly regarded and been a finalist for other managerial gigs. But he was on Hinch's staff when cheating was ongoing in 2018. That seems pretty much disqualifying. Two known interviewees are quality options, though neither has skippered a team to the World Series. Buck Showalter was always extremely highly regarded, John Gibbons steered the Blue Jays to back-to-back American League Championship Series appearances in 2015 and 2016. Between those two I'd lean Showalter but either would be fine.

Remember The Texans

How thankful are Bill O'Brien and the Texans for the Astros' mess grabbing all the headlines not even 24 hours after the Texans' collapse in Kansas City? It's almost impossible to get blown out of an NFL game in which you lead 24-nothing. Almost. The Texans pulled it off! Won't that cute little AFC South Champion banner be extra cute when it hangs next season? Hangs like a dead man from a noose.

As I put it last week, the Chiefs' offense is better than the Texans' offense, the Chiefs' defense better than the Texans' defense, and the Chiefs' coaching better than the Texans' coaching. But the way the game played out was still preposterous.

If Travis Kelce had beaten Lonnie Johnson any worse than he did Johnson's name should have been legally changed to Rented Mule. J.J. Watt was essentially a zero. No tackles, no assists on tackles, no sacks, no quarterback hits. Are you going to pay 15 and a half million dollars to a 31 year old Watt after his three major injuries in the last four seasons. That's a yes.

At least we have clarity that the Texans must dedicate their first round pick to a pass rusher or a defensive back. Wait, they don't have a first round pick. Well, in 2021 then. Wait. Bill O'Brien traded that away too. Speaking of O'Brien…

Opting for the field goal on fourth and one up 21-0 early second quarter was not indefensible. However, O'Brien's explanation for doing so was pitiful. The fake punt? Most agree, dumb.But not absolutely indefensible. This was the O'Brien Is Not Fit For Command moment of the game: He needed to use a timeout, with 11:45 left in the fourth quarter, the Texans down 17, facing fourth and fourth and four, in Chiefs' territory, to decide to go for the first down rather than punt. A cinder block could have displayed the same game management IQ. O'Brien has three seasons left on his contract. Unless Cal McNair takes a decidedly different tack than his father did, O'Brien's job is as safe as any Supreme Court Justice's.

Speaking of Cal, since the loss he's been spotted as often and been as vocal this week as Alex Bregman.

Buzzer Beaters

1. So, if guaranteed the truth: For a million dollars is your bet Altuve was wearing something or not? 2. Alex Cora should be banned from ever again managing a Major League team. 3. Famous "scandals": Bronze-Teapot Dome Silver-Patty Smyth fronted band, had big hit with Goodbye to You Gold-Kerry Washington and the TV show.

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