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 bats have a hot night

Astros clobber Rangers to win series opener

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After dropping two of three in Seattle, the Astros entered the regular season's final series still waiting to clinch their playoff berth. Luckily their matchup favored them, with four games against the 19-37 Rangers, which they have done well against in recent years. Here are highlights from the opener:

Final Score: Astros 12, Rangers 4.

Record: 29-28, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Cristian Javier (5-2, 3.48 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Lance Lynn (6-3, 3.32 ERA).

Astros put up 10 on Lynn 

Houston had no trouble getting acquainted with the Rangers' new stadium, jumping out to an early lead in the top of the first inning. After a lengthy at-bat against Lance Lynn, Jose Altuve reached on a one-out single, then scored from first on a two-out RBI-triple by Alex Bregman. They'd double their lead in the next at-bat on an error, making it 2-0.

They extended that lead even more in the next inning, getting back-to-back singles to start the inning to set up a big three-run dinger by George Springer to straightaway center-field to make it 5-0. Bregman added two more RBI to his night in the top of the fifth, capitalizing on a leadoff single by Michael Brantley by hitting a two-run homer to make it a 7-0 lead. Altuve would push the total to double-digits in the top of the sixth, lifting a three-run home run of his own to make it a 10- lead.

Javier with a decent start, bullpen closes out the win

Meanwhile, Cristian Javier was doing well on the mound against the Rangers. He allowed just three baserunners through the first five innings, a double in the first, a hit batter in the second, and a single in the fifth. He would falter a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff single then a two-run homer, then later in the inning a sac fly, making it 10-3 before Houston would turn to their bullpen. Javier's final line: 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 95 TP.

Luis Garcia would get the final out of the sixth then returned for the bottom of the seventh, allowing a leadoff double that would score on a two-out RBI-double, making it a six-run game before Garcia finished the frame. Brooks Raley was the next reliever and notched two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth.

Josh Reddick gave Houston two more insurance runs, joining the home run barrage with a two-run homer in the top of the inning to make it 12-4 going to the bottom half. Brandon Bielak was given a low-leverage opportunity to throw in the bottom of the ninth. He erased a two-out double for a scoreless inning to wrap up the lopsided win, lowering Houston's magic number to 1.

Up Next: The second game of this four-game set between Houston and Texas will start Friday at 7:05 PM Central at Globe Life Field. The pitching battle will be Kyle Cody (1-1, 1.53 ERA) for the Rangers and Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.78 ERA) for the Astros.

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