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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This year, the Astros are favored to win the World Series. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

When the umpire yells "play ball!" on Thursday for Astros opening day, three players- a full third of their batting order - will be missing from their opening day lineup from last year when, oh yeah, they won the World Series. Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley are on the injured list and Yuli Gurriel effectively was told good luck in your future endeavors. Other notables from last year no longer with the Astros: Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, Aledmys Diaz, Christian Vasquez, and Jake Odorizzi.

That's on top of the Astros in recent years saying goodbye to All-Stars Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Charlie Morton. Don't underestimate Morton's contribution when he pitched for the Astros in 2017-18. He went 29-10 and won Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, that's all.

And while the team keeps on winning at a historic pace, all these injuries and departures are going to catch up to the Astros one of these years.

But this ain't the year. The Astros demolished baseball last year, winning their division by 16 games and roaring through the postseason going 11-2, including sweeps of the Mariners and Yankees.

Las Vegas oddsmakers have the Astros as the (+600) preseason betting favorite to repeat as World Series champs in 2023, followed by the New York Yankees (+650), Los Angeles Dodgers (+750), New York Mets (+750), Atlanta Braves (+1000) and San Diego Padres (+1000).

It's a different scene from 2022 when the Dodgers, Braves, Yankees and even the Toronto Blue Jays all were preseason favorites over the Astros to win the World Series. In other words, Mattress Mack will load up on the Astros again this season and hopefully visit the pay window again. He just may not get the gross national product, all-time payout he got last year. Poor guy. Mack's already put down $1.9 million on the Astros, a commitment that's likely to increase as the Astros plow through the season.

The over/under wins total for the Astros is 95.5. That's a good number for an FM radio station, but the Astros should blow by that total in mid-September. The Astros won 106 games last year, and at least 100 wins in four of the last five full seasons. I wonder if Mack has room in his car for next time he drives to Louisiana to make a bet. I call shotgun!

While Altuve and Brantley sit on the wounded list Thursday, and Gurriel is wearing a Miami Marlins uniform, one thing will be the same as Opening Day last year. Framber Valdez, the Astros' quality start machine, will be on the mound against the Chicago White Sox at Minute Maid Park. The game will start at 6:08 p.m., airing on ESPN. Get there early to watch the Astros unfurl another World Series banner. Remember that AT&T SportsNet gets benched when ESPN does an Astros game. Bummer. Blummer. ESPN also has the April 16 game against the Rangers and the April 30 rematch with the Phillies.

How did Valdez perform Opening Day 2022? As it would turn out all season, typical Valdez: 6.2 innings, no runs, only two unproductive hits, one walk, six K's and he got the W. Final score:, Astros 3, Los Angeles Angels 1. Valdez started, got the win, Pressly pitched the ninth, got the save. Sound familiar? Lather, rinse, repeat. The opposing pitcher that game - some under-publicized fellow named Shohei Ohtani. It wasn't Ohtani's day. While he pitched ok, surrendering four hits and one run over 4.1 innings, he took the loss. Ohtani also went 0-4 at the plate.

The Astros won Game 2 of that series, 13-6, behind Odorizzi and a battalion of relievers. The Angels exacted revenge in Game 3, a 2-0 shutout with Noah Syndergaard starting. Verlander, despite giving up only one run over five innings, absorbed the loss.

Of course games will look different this season with no infield shift, bigger bases and a pitch timer. The only thing that will look the same - the standings. Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez will salivate when they don't hit screamers through the infield only to be thrown out by second basemen playing short right field. Altuve's fractured thumb should heal in time for the future Hall of Famer to return in early June. Brantley could be back in May. Lance McCullers is anybody's guess, but time heals all wounds, including elbows.

The Astros are riding a dynasty-level of success, you know the numbers, six consecutive postseason appearances (only team in MLB history to win a postseason series six straight seasons), six ALCS appearances in a row, four World Series appearances, two championships.

There's no reason to stop now.

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