GREAT EXPECTATIONS

All the reasons the Astros should finish with the best record in baseball

Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

I can give you 30 reasons why the Houston Astros will win the American League West for the fourth time in a row, take the American League pennant for the third time in four years and repeat as the winningest team in all of baseball:

The Astros roster. I don't care who's in the other dugout, I'll take our guys.

Lost amid the craziness and scandal over sign-stealing and punishment, this team is loaded with returning All-Stars and should've-been All-Stars last season. No other team in MLB has a batting order packed (at least 1-7) with proven great players like Houston. True, a month into the season, I'll only have 26 reasons why the Astros will find their way back to the World Series. It's not that my confidence will wane, baseball will allow only 26 players on rosters after four weeks.

Sure the Dodgers and Yankees have added superstars, but don't they do that every year? And still come up short? While the Astros stood pat, let's remember that the Astros might be defending World Series champs if not for a bonehead managerial decision in Game 7 last year. The Astros were leading the Washington Nationals, 2-1, with pitcher Zack Greinke cruising. Eight outs from planning another World Series parade in downtown Houston, with 20-game winner Gerrit Cole warm in the bullpen, manager A.J. Hinch summoned Will Harris in from the pen and … no need to stir up painful memories. Cole never got in the game and soon was outta here for a massive 9-year, record-breaking contract with the Yankees.

Let's focus on the present: the Astros are ready to tighten their grip atop the American league, starting tonight (8:10 on ATT SportsNet Southwest) with Justin Verlander on the mound against the Seattle Mariners. Let's hope conductor Bobby Dynamite has his train over the Crawford Boxes fully charged. Yes, despite no fans, no hot dogs or spittin' sunflower seeds, the locomotive will be chugging back and forth with every Astros run scored.

The Astros infield boasts four All-Star caliber sluggers: first-baseman Yuli Gurriel (31 homers, 104 RBI, .298 batting average); second baseman Jose Altuve (31 homers, .298); shortstop Carlos Correa (21 homers) and third baseman Alex Bregman (41 home runs, 112 RBI, .296, MVP runner-up).

Two All-Stars return to the Astros outfield: Michael Brantley (90 RBI, .311) and George Springer (39 Springer dingers, 96 RBI, .292 as the leadoff hitter!) Last year's rookie sensation Yordan Alvarez (27 homers, .313) will be back … if and when.

The pitching staff returns Justin Verlander (21 wins, Cy Young Award), Greinke (8-1 with Astros last year) and Josh James (5-1). Plus the electric Lance McCullers Jr. is back from injury. If McCullers stays healthy, he can fill much of the void left by Cole. The bullpen is adequate with Roberto Osuna (2.63 ERA) and Ryan Pressly (2.32). Cool and calm new manager Dusty Baker is made for a suddenly veteran team like the 2020 Astros.

The Astros had the best record in hardball last year, 107-55. They finished 10 games in front of the Oakland A's. They're formidable, but a threat? Consider only one Oakland A's position player would start for the Astros: MVP candidate shortstop Marcus Semien. Charlie Pallilo says A's first baseman Matt Olson would send Gurriel to the bench, but I don't see it. Yuli is an amazing hitter with runners on base, drove in 13 more runs than Olson and hit 30 points higher. La Piña's bobblehead is a Toy Museum Hall of Famer.

The Angels will be improved with the addition of former Lamar High School standout Anthony Rendon and the return of two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani to full service. But the Angels were a distant 35 games behind the Astros last season. That's too much to make up.

With MLB expanding the number of playoff teams to 16, the 2020 season really will be an NBA-style seeding tournament for the post-season: the top two teams in the six divisions, plus the two next-best records in each league. That's 16 out of 30 teams qualifying for the playoffs. That's not baseball, that's hockey. What's next, participation trophies for the Detroit Tigers?

Vegas has the Astros as third choice to win the World Series at 11-1 odds, behind the Dodgers and Yankees (both 7-2). I'm all over the Astros. Vegas also has Alex Bregman (7-2) as the first Astro to get plunked this year, followed by Correa and Altuve (both 4-1) and Springer (9-2). I'll go with Springer, only because he'll be the first in the batter's box. Might as well get the inevitable out of the way.

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Houston's losing streak extended to five games

With key Astros missing, Detroit completes the series sweep

An overall bad day for the Astros on Wednesday. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the Astros received a big blow to their chances in the series finale against Detroit and potentially longer. Five players: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Martin Maldonado, and Robel Garcia would all be moved to the IL due to health and safety protocols, leaving them scrambling to get a whole team together for the game against the Tigers.

The Astros would not be able to overcome both the loss of players and the onslaught of another strong start by Detroit in Wednesday's game which put them too far out front for Houston to come back from to avoid a series sweep.

Final Score: Tigers 6, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 6-6, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Michael Fulmer (1-0)

Losing Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (1-1)

Tigers knock out another starter early

Detroit continued their success of making Houston's starter work hard in early innings, getting after Lance McCullers Jr., and giving him an early exit. After a lengthy fist, they broke through in the second getting two hits, a walk, a hit batter, and an RBI groundout to put up three runs on 34 pitches.

He would have a quicker 1-2-3 third, but after giving up a single, a walk, and hitting another batter to load the bases and reach 87 pitches, he would be removed in favor of Joe Smith. Smith would allow all three of the inherited runners to score, adding those runs to McCullers Jr.'s final line: 3.2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 87 P.

Astros try to claw back into it

After Smith would go on to load the bases again in the inning, still with two outs, Houston made another pitching change to bring in Brandon Bielak to get the third out and stop the bleeding at 6-0. The Astros would get on the board in the fifth, getting a runner on base to set up a two-run homer by Jason Castro to cut the lead to 6-2.



Bielak remained in the game to try and eat up as many innings as possible. While he continued to hold the Tigers to their six runs through the six innings, the Astros clawed back into the game. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put their first two batters on base with a walk and single before an RBI-single by Yuli Gurriel to make it 6-3. They would threaten for more but be held there for the time being.

Astros can't cash in, Tigers complete sweep

Ryne Stanek was Houston's next reliever in the top of the seventh, getting a 1-2-3 frame to keep it a three-run game, as did Brooks Raley in the eighth. In the home part of the inning, the Astros put their first two runners on base on an error and a walk, then loaded them with a one-out single by Carlos Correa. They'd waste their chance to make something happen, though, with an inning-ending double-play.

Ryan Pressly, who had no save opportunities in recent games, entered to get some work in the top of the ninth. He worked around a leadoff double for a scoreless inning, sending the 6-3 game to the bottom of the ninth. The Astros had yet another chance to make something happen, loading the bases with no outs to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. After two outs, Yuli Gurriel would bring one run in with a walk, but that's as close as they'd come, extending their losing streak to five games and getting swept by the Tigers.

Up Next: Houston will get a much-needed day off tomorrow to try and leave this poor homestand behind them. They'll pick things up in Seattle on Friday, with first pitch of the opener of three games at 9:10 PM Central. The expected pitching matchup is Jose Urquidy (0-1, 5.23 ERA) for the Astros and Yusei Kikuchi (0-0, 3.75 ERA) for the Mariners.

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