The Pallilog

As Red Sox loom, Astros are rolling along at a historic pace

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There is no such thing as a pivotal mid-May baseball series. Even with a sweep at Fenway Park this weekend the Astros would get no vengeance for the Red Sox having dethroned them last October in the American League Championship Series. But they'd still enjoy it. The Astros have reeled off eight consecutive wins. The Red Sox have recovered from a dismal 6-13 start to win 17 of their last 24 games.

Reigning AL Most Valuable player Mookie Betts best reflects the World Series champs' staggering start and subsequent rebound. Betts hit a paltry .200 over the 6-13 start. Since then he's batting .360 with an OPS over 1.000. Overall, at least until (if?) the Yankees get healthy, only Boston in the AL has a lineup that can remotely challenge the Astros for depth of quality.

It's still too early in the season to make all that much of "on pace" stats, but more than one quarter of the schedule having been played is not a trivial slice. Both Alex Bregman and George Springer are on pace to hit more than 50 home runs. Springer in particular is off to an incredible season. For a leadoff hitter to lead the league in runs batted in is absurd. Springer leads the AL with 40. Only two leadoff hitters have ever reached 100 RBI for a season (Charlie Blackmon 104, Darren Erstad 100). Springer is on pace for 147. There is zero chance he maintains that pace, but breaking the leadoff man season RBI mark is clearly in play. Springer's contract is up after this season, but the Astros control his rights via salary arbitration for 2020. He's looking at a raise from 12 million dollars this season to 20 mil or so next, after which he can become a free agent (unless an extension is agreed upon in the meantime). However, Springer will turn 31 years old before hitting the open market so he can basically forget a six year deal like Bregman got, maybe the Astros would consider five, but they'll be wary. Jose Altuve's five year extension kicks in next year and takes him through the season in which he turns 34. It would be denial to not have at least a pinch of concern about that given Altuve's decline in production and now two different leg injuries.



Wrapping up the Rockets

An athlete or sports team can fail and fail miserably, without choking. The Rockets didn't choke in their latest demise at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. A better, more clutch (ouch), real championship team, beat them. Again. Still, the way the red curtain closed in game six was a crushing franchise failure. The Warriors played without their best all around player, Kevin Durant. Their most important player, Stephen Curry did not score in the first half. Draymond Green got in foul trouble.

Unlike in multiple prior elimination losses, James Harden wasn't awful and/or seemingly a broken player. He went down swinging. But it's also fact that in the last 10 minutes of their season Harden committed four turnovers, while the Warriors committed none. Until or unless he demonstrates otherwise, Harden's postseason shortcomings are a part of the evaluation when comparing him to all-time greats.

Chris Paul who was so mediocre over the first five games, showed out in game six. Offensively anyway. Wasn't enough. The three years 124 million dollars guaranteed remaining on Paul's deal make his one of the worst contracts in the NBA going forward.

Owner Tilman Fertitta sure talked tough after the loss. His intensity and boldness are fun. But let's face it, part of the Rockets falling short was their weak bench, construction of which was impacted by the Rockets going nickel-dimey over luxury tax concerns. The Rockets have basically no wherewithal to go big game hunting this offseason, but do have flexibility via salary cap exceptions to make moves to start next season with a legitimate NBA bench. That is if dodging the luxury tax is not an objective this time around. I presume it won't be. General Manager Daryl Morey needs to do a better job than he did last summer.

In trying to put some upbeat tone to things Mike D'Antoni referred to the Rockets core still being young. That is laughable. If the Rockets are in the second round of the playoffs next season Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker will be 35 years old. Eric Gordon will be 31, James Harden 30. The Rockets best hope isn't in them getting much better. It's in Durant leaving and the Warriors slipping, and younger, ascendant teams (Nuggets, Clippers, Jazz, Blazers) not going by them.

Buzzer beaters

1. Seven different starting pitchers have won a Cy Young Award after turning 36. Justin Verlander looks like a clear frontrunner to become the eighth. 2.Tyler White is overweight and been lousy so far this season. DH replacement in waiting Yordan Alvarez hit two more homers Thursday and is batting .410 and slugging .903 at AAA. 3. MLB's greatest fat hitters: Bronze-Prince Fielder Silver-later career Tony Gwynn Gold-Babe Ruth


There are plenty of reasons to watch

An exciting week ahead for the Astros

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After the disappointing 12-0 blowout loss to the Blue Jays on Father's Day to end last week, Houston will turn the page to a new one with some compelling components to look forward to in the next seven days. With a full seven-game week ahead, here are some of the things to be watching for:

The Alvarez roadshow

We are six games into the Yordan Alvarez experience, and over those six games, he has homered in four. Some of those would have been home runs nearly anywhere, but this week we will get to see how he handles leaving the confines of Minute Maid Park.

Luckily for Alvarez, both Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati and Yankee Stadium in New York provide a boost for left-handed hitters, especially Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field. He'll also potentially get to face some pitchers who have been struggling with the long ball in Tyler Mahle for the Reds and J.A. Happ for the Yankees. It should shape up to be another big week at the plate for Alvarez, maintaining his at-bats as being much-watch TV.

Pitchers hitting in Cincinnati 

Houston will make their first trip to a National League park in 2019 to start the week with a three-game series with the Reds. The inter-league matchup presents the rare opportunity to see the DH-less Astros send their pitcher to the plate to try and contribute on offense.

The three pitchers we will get to see: Wade Miley, Justin Verlander, and Gerrit Cole. Miley has a career batting average of .155 including one home run from back in 2013 with the Diamondbacks. Last year with the Brewers he hit .185 with five hits and a walk over 27 at-bats.

Cole is no stranger to the batter's box, playing the first five years of his career in the National League for Pittsburgh. He's a career .168 hitter and hit a home run in three out of his five seasons with the Pirates. However, he lost a little bit of his swing last season, going 0-for-9 with eight strikeouts for the Astros in his first season as part of his new American League team.

Then there's Justin Verlander. He has played in the AL his entire career, making him mostly a stranger at the plate. That makes it no surprise that his batting numbers aren't quite at the level of his dominant pitching numbers, hitting just .104 in his career. He has notched an RBI, though, getting the first of his career in 2017 for the Tigers before coming over to Houston.

So with that, it should be an entertaining series to start the week, and will likely make fans of the American League relish the fact that they get to have a Designated Hitter in the lineup every day.

Two starts for Verlander

While he may not be an All-Star with a bat, he's definitely on track to a lot of awards this year on the mound. Verlander is scheduled to make two starts this week, one on Tuesday night against the Reds, then another on Sunday in New York against the Yankees.

Not only does that mean two chances to see if Verlander can keep up the breakneck pace he's on in 2019, but it will also mean moving up another spot on the all-time strikeout list. At 2,831 in his career, he's just one away from tying, and two from passing, Mickey Lolich for the 19th spot on the famed list. Lolich has a connection with Justin, as he pitched thirteen seasons with the Tigers between 1963 and 1975.

Once Verlander takes over that spot, next up will be Jim Bunning who sits in 18th with 2,855 strikeouts, 24 ahead of the Astros' ace. Considering he threw 15 Ks in his last start, it's not out of the realm of possibility that he could be tied or in sole possession of that 18th spot before the week is over, though to do so he'll have to have a fantastic game against a very potent Yankees lineup.

Potential pieces coming back into place

We should know more after tomorrow's game which will be a back-to-back start for the former-MVP, but the Astros are expected to have Jose Altuve rejoin the team while on this road trip. Not that the Astros have been horrid on offense without him, but having him back on the field will provide an uptick in performance, and moral.

Two other players in similar situations as Altuve and expected to come back up are Max Stassi and Collin McHugh. Stassi will likely retake his roster spot as the backup catcher, meaning Garret Stubbs will make the trip back to Round Rock. As far as McHugh, we will have to wait and see if he makes some appearances out of the bullpen to ramp things back up before going back into the rotation, or if AJ Hinch has other plans going forward.

In any case, getting some of these players back means the team is getting healthy again. George Springer has been ramping up activities, and we should hear about a rehab assignment for him soon. Carlos Correa, however, remains sidelined and the Astros should remain conservative with his recovery.

Huge weekend series in the Bronx 

After the three-game set in Cincinnati against the Reds, the Astros will travel to New York for a big four-game weekend series with the Yankees. The Yankees made a big splash in the trade market this past week, taking advantage of a liquidating Mariners team who was willing to deal Edwin Encarnacion to New York for a lone prospect player along with some cash trading. Encarnacion currently leads the American League in home runs, giving the Yankees yet another mighty bat in their lineup.

Two of the other powerful batters that are scheduled to make returns to the lineup this week: Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Both are currently on rehab stints and expected to rejoin the major-league team before this week is over. The Yankees will catch the 3-4-5-1 spots in Houston's rotation, which will be an intriguing matchup on both sides.

In any case, no matter who we see back in the lineups this weekend, it's going to be a fun and high-intensity matchup with these two teams currently both in the top four in win-loss records in the league. Also, the Yankees will likely be out to even the score after the Astros swept them in Houston in a three-game series in early April.

It sets up to be what many consider a preview of an ALDS or ALCS matchup between two of the best teams not only in the American League but the entire league.

Where will the Astros stand, both in their record and in roster spots, when this week concludes? It's hard to predict, but regardless, it should be a fun week to catch some Astros games on TV.

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