The Pallilog

Astros bullpen is only real area of concern

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

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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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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