The Pallilog

Astros bullpen is only real area of concern

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If the Astros want the best record in Major League Baseball (of course they do), they can't afford to lose many games on days when both the Dodgers and Yankees lose. Thursday night the Dodgers and Yankees lost, and then the Astros lost at Oakland. So heading into the weekend the Astros trail both by two and a half games.

The Astros have a spectacularly constructed ballclub. But like every other big league team ever, they're not perfect. For all the overpowering capability of their offense, when trailing after eight innings this season, the Astros are 0 and 40. Now, all teams lose almost every game when behind after eight, not many lose EVERY game. Overall however, the most important component of that stat is that over their first 122 games played, the Astros have only trailed going to the ninth 40 times.

The bullpen is a real concern these days. No reason to be feeling around for panic buttons, but concern is clearly warranted. Closer Roberto Osuna is nothing special and over the last two plus months has been much less. In the past A.J. Hinch has said bullpen roles are flexible. He hasn't managed that way. Osuna has essentially been the automatic ninth inning save situation guy. He's not that good. Osuna started the season converting his 1st 13 save chances. Since then he's converted 13 more…and blown five others. That, is poor. Two seasons ago Osuna led the Major Leagues in blown saves with 10.

If Ryan Pressly gets fully back on track off of his leg injury he is the Astros best reliever, and in October should be the reliever asked to get the toughest outs late in games. But since starting his season near flawlessly into June, Pressly too has been shakier than desirable.

Among the "others" only Will Harris is having a good season. It's a regular season problem in the race with the Yankees and Dodgers. It's an issue that can be diminished in the postseason. As two years ago when Ken Giles and, really, Chris Devenski became unusable, Hinch may well use Astros' starting pitchers for relief in some key spots.

After this weekend's series at Oakland, the Astros schedule is soft overall the rest of the way. But they can't just throw their bats and gloves on the field and win. See this week's results.

The Yankees meanwhile have been pretty amazing. Their injury load this season has been clearly worse than what the Astros have endured, and that's saying a lot, considering three of the best dozen or so players in the American League (George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve) have all missed chunks of time this season. Yet the Yankees have opened up 2 ½ games of daylight over the Astros. But, the Yanks are now in a 10 game stretch of four vs. the Indians, three at the A's, then three at the Dodgers. The stretch started with the Indians obliterating the Yankees with 19 runs Thursday. It's doubtful the Yankees grow their lead over this stretch, but if they do the Astros will probably have to settle for being the second best team in the American League. Until the playoffs anyway.

With the Detroit Lions in town to practice for two days with and then play the Texans Saturday, it comes to mind that Barry Sanders retired 20 years ago this summer. No running back had a greater and more electrifying NFL career. Jim Brown was greater, but I don't think as electrifying. Walter Payton was greater, but I don't think as electrifying. Bo Jackson was maybe even more electrifying, but his NFL career was a hiccup.

Sanders played 10 NFL seasons. He retired at 31 years old one good season short of topping Payton for the career NFL rushing record that Emmitt Smith would go on to shatter. Over Sanders's decade with Detroit the Lions made the playoffs five times but won exactly one playoff game (destroying the Cowboys 38-6 the season before the Cowboys won the first of their three Lombardi Trophies of the Aikman/Smith/Irvin era). That is the Lions' Super Bowl era Golden Age. They won the 1957 NFL Championship. And have just that one playoff win since. One playoff win in 61 years! And some Texans fans think they have it tough.

I discussed on the show Thursday that if going with a four wide receiver set and the sole criterion is best hands, my all-time foursome is Cris Carter, Larry Fitzgerald, Fred Biletnikoff, and I think DeAndre Hopkins. Highest honorable mention to Steve Largent, and anecdotally, Raymond Berry. Jerry Rice is head and shoulders the greatest wide receiver ever, but for pure pass catching ability he is not supplanting the aforementioned. Biletnikoff was clearly aided by the gobs of now illegal stickum that he used. On the other hand, today's pass catchers benefit from much tackier and more helpful gloves.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Despite four losses in their last five games the Astros are still on pace to win 103. 2. That guy who bangs a drum all game in Oakland should be locked in an elevator for a week with the guy who does it in Cleveland. And two insurance salesmen. 3. Best things about preseason football: Bronze-vacant Silver-surprise guys who earn jobs Gold-the end of it


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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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