HOUSTON'S SHINING STAR

An overwhelming case for why baseball needs the Astros, and more of them

Carlos Correa is playing mad baseball. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The Houston Astros are on an 8-game roll, they've got the best record in the American League, they're on top of USA Today's power rankings, and they're doing it with a blend of veterans and exciting young players.

Yeah, it's looking like 2017 all over again. Notice I said "looking" and not "sounding." You're not hearing one peep about sign-stealing or trashcan-banging or any centerfield-camera espionage.

I'm not going to bog down in statistics or percentage points. It's enough to say the Astros are leading all of baseball in (deep breath) batting average, runs scored, slugging, RBI, hits, on base percentage, and most other offensive categories.

They're leading the American League in the only category that really matters: wins. The Astros stand at 44-28 after Monday night's 10-2 mashing of the Orioles in rainy Baltimore. The way the Astros are hitting, it might be time for MLB to consider implementing Little League's "mercy rule." When one team is leading by 10 or more runs after the fourth inning, that's it, game over.

Baseball is struggling to hold on in America. MLB's fan base is graying, the average ticket-buyer is 57 years old, that's up from 50 in 2000. Only seven percent of baseball fans are younger than 18. Attendance has dropped eight years in a row. League attendance peaked back in 2007. TV ratings are dwindling. The highest-rated World Series was a half-century ago, practically the Dark Ages of modern professional sports. Scoring is down, strikeouts are up and sleepy games are taking forever to play. League batting average through May was the lowest since 1968, when hitting hit rock bottom and they had to lower the mound the next season. If the NBA is hip hop, MLB is Brenda Lee singing "I'm Sorry."

That's everywhere else. In Houston, baseball is our city's shining light. While the Rockets are the worst team in the NBA, the Texans trade away or release their most beloved and popular players, and the quarterback is accused of sexual misconduct, may be suspended and wants out anyway, the Astros are packing Minute Maid Park, winning like crazy and scoring with ease. In Houston, our leadoff batter is homer happy, and .300 hitters dot the lineup. Big innings have become routine. The Astros are putting up more crooked numbers than Wesley Snipes' 1040 tax return. Fans are shaking off the pandemic blues and returning to the stadium. The Astros, despite COVID-reduced capacity for most of the season, are averaging 22,884 fans. Sales of Nolan Ryan all-beef franks are up on Dollar Dog nights. The games are fun in Houston. Even when there's nothing on TV, there's usually an Astros game in prime time. AT&T SportsNet's ratings and Geoff Blum's fascination with launch angles and exit velocity are up.

All this Astros success is despite a troubling 7-10 record in April, a flailing bullpen, injuries to key players like Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers and Michael Brantley, an early COVID outbreak that sidelined starters Bregman, Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldenado, a COVID relapse sending hot-hitting Kyle Tucker to timeout and relentless jeering in rival stadiums. In 2017 the Astros were America's sweethearts, now they dastardly villains. But like Top 40 radio, the hits just keep on coming.

Counting backwards, the Astros have won series against the White Sox (4-game sweep), Rangers (2-0), Twins (2-1), Red Sox (2-1), Blue Jays (2-1) and the Red Sox again (3-1)

Carlos Correa is playing mad baseball. He's looking for a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars and he's making it impossible for the Astros not to pony up after this season. Yuli Gurriel, after last year's whispers that he might be done, is leading the team in RBI, Top 10 in American League batting, and posting insane numbers with runners in scoring position. Brantley is Brantley, quietly leading the American League in batting.

Abraham Toro was hitting .083 on April 24 when he was exiled back to Triple A Sugar Land. The Astros brought him back on June 17 after Bregman went down with an injury. Three games later Toro was hitting .348. That's some swing.

In 2017, Correa, Bregman and McCullers were brilliant young Astros leading the team to their first championship. Now they're veteran leaders, while Alvarez, Framber Valdez, Tucker, Chas McCormick, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and others are shimmering new stars.

Then there's pitching ace Zack Greinke telling the batter what pitch is coming. That's weird. That's 7-2 this season. Imagine if he didn't steal his own signs.

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We'll see if Watson is in pads on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of the Houston Texans.

The Houston Texans had their last practice before pads come on for the first time on Tuesday. There was plenty to see on Monday.

1. Deshaun Watson had his usual extremely light level of work. He did very little throwing to teammates, though he did throw to the tight ends in 1-on-1 drills.

2. Texans head coach David Culley said "nothing has changed" when asked if Deshaun Watson will be in pads Tuesday. Culley has maintained that answer for a couple of sessions now.

3. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor was back after missing Saturday with an excused personal day. Taylor has been the best quarterback in camp by a wide margin. Taylor makes better decisions with the football than other quarterbacks, but he does struggle on deeper passes. Taylor missed wildly on one deep ball and was a little wobbly on another.

4. Nobody in camp can cover wide receiver Brandin Cooks. This could be the easiest training camp of his life. He easily gets open in 1-on-1 situations.

5. Rookie wide receiver Nico Collins continues to flash his abilities in camp. Collins easily shook loose from defensive back John Reid and took the route vertical for an easy score. Collins later had a tough catch in traffic.

6. It's only been a few days, but the competition for inside wide receiver reps is tough. Former Bears wideout Anthony Miller has looked quick and nothing like the "draft bust" the Bears fans watched. Keke Coutee has rarely lost a rep, but Desmond King did win a few times over Coutee in the opening days of camp. Former Bengals wideout Alex Erickson finds himself constantly open. The cuts at wide receiver are already shaking out to be difficult.

7. Davis Mills bounced back in a sense that he couldn't be worse than he was on Saturday. The performance from Mills on Saturday was abysmal, but head coach David Culley said he liked how Mills responded today. With Tyrod Taylor back, there were fewer reps for Mills, but he had some impressive throws to go along with an off-target throw or two. Mills was far better than Jeff Driskel on Monday. Driskel tossed two interceptions right to defenders, including one that would've gone the wrong way for a score.

8. This linebacker group is interesting. With a new defensive scheme under Lovie Smith, the type of linebacker is very different from previous years. There was a clear emphasis on cover ability as these linebackers were added to the team.

9. Kamu Grugier-Hill and Kevin Pierre-Louis have both had some significant wins for the linebackers in coverage.

10. Rookie tight end Brevin Jordan looks the part physically, but he's had a rough few days, including a drop on Monday.

11. With the pads coming on Tuesday, it will be fun to watch the rebuilt defensive line clash with the many combinations of the offensive line. There will be no J.J. Watt who historically stirred up the team on day one of pads. Laremy Tunsil's cool confidence about the offensive line over the weekend leads me to believe they are a confident group, while there are spots to be won on the defensive side of the line.

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