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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As Astros fans play the waiting game to see where Carlos Correa will sign his next deal, we debate whether the Astros could offer Correa a front-loaded deal to provide the shortstop the payday he's looking for while keeping Houston flexible for the future.

Presented by Coors Light.

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