Houston comes a game short of the sweep

Astros drop finale to Rays with Yankees on deck

Astros' Yordan Alvarez
Yordan Alvarez's good day at the plate wasn't enough for Houston against the Rays on Sunday. Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Yordan Alvarez's good day at the plate wasn't enough for Houston against the Rays on Sunday.

Already having the series locked up by taking the first two games, the Astros entered the finale against the Rays on Sunday looking for the three-game sweep. The Rays would avoid it, getting some timely runs late to hand Houston the loss.

Final Score: Rays 5, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 15-13, tied for second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jeffrey Springs (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Brooks Raley (0-1)

Houston scores first, again

After three scoreless innings, with the Rays wasting a prime opportunity to score first in the bottom of the second, Houston would get on the board first with a Yordan Alvarez 424-foot solo home run in the top of the fourth. They would get runners on second and third with no outs in the top of the fifth, bringing both of them home on a sac fly by Jose Altuve and RBI single by Michael Brantley, extending the lead to 3-0.

Tampa Bay responds as teams trade runs

It looked like Cristian Javier would follow the same game plan as the last two starters in this series; take advantage of a lead by going deep into the game without allowing any runs. After four scoreless, Javier would put himself into trouble in the bottom of the fifth, issuing a walk and hitting a batter, putting two on base to set up a three-run game-tying homer. He would finish that inning before the Astros moved to their bullpen the rest of the way. Javier's final line: 5.0 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 81 P.

Houston regained the lead in the top of the sixth, with Yordan Alvarez leading the inning off with a double, then scoring on an RBI single by Myles Straw. Tampa Bay answered back immediately in the home half of the same inning against Byan Abreu, with a one-out double eventually turning into a run after a wild pitch and error.

Rays jump in front late and avoid the sweep

Still tied 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh, Brooks Raley took over on the mound but would only manage one out against his three batters, leaving a runner on first and third for Ryne Stanek. Stanek couldn't erase the inherited runners, giving up an RBI single to put Tampa Bay back in front 5-4 before the inning was over.

After the Astros went down in order in the top of the eighth, Kent Emanuel took over out of the bullpen to try and keep it a one-run game. He did his job, getting a 1-2-3 frame with two strikeouts, but the Astros would not mount a rally in the top of the ninth, ending this series with a loss.

Up Next: The Astros will have a day off tomorrow as they travel to New York in advance of a highly-anticipated three-game series with the Yankees. The opener will get started at 6:05 PM Central on Tuesday, with Zack Greinke (2-1, 3.44 ERA) on the mound for Houston and Domingo German (2-2, 4.05 ERA) for New York.

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The Texans have a clear path to winning the Wild Card. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

It's fun having meaningful December football in town. While the Texans' loss to Jacksonville means it would take a little holiday miracle for them to win the AFC South, snaring one of the three AFC Wild Card spots is right in front of them.

There are still six weeks of play remaining, but the AFC Division winners seem pretty clear. Miami has command of the East, Baltimore the North, Jacksonville the South, and as always Kansas City the West. If holding out hope that the Texans can overtake the Jaguars, crazy stuff happens, but that would be extra crazy. If the Texans win out to finish 12-5 (unlikely), the Jaguars still take the division by winning four of their last six games unless they lose to the lowly Titans. The Jags also have the Bengals, Panthers, and Buccaneers as should-be-wins. If the Texans post a nifty 5-1 closing stretch, the Jags need just go 3-3, again provided they beat the Titans.

So, the Texans' realistic focus is on a Wild Card. I'm sure DeMeco Ryans would say, “No, our entire focus is on the Broncos.” For the team, sure. The rest of us can take six games at a time. Ahead of the Texans now are the 7-4 Browns and Steelers. They are tied with the 6-5 Colts (technically behind them with Indy having beaten the Texans in the season opener) and Broncos.

The Texans have to finish ahead of at least two of the four. That the Texans control their destiny is false, because the whole point of destiny/fate/kismet is that they are beyond control. So let's say the dominoes are lined up for the Texans to knock over.
They already own the tiebreaker over the Steelers. The Broncos are here Sunday, the Browns play at NRG Stadium Christmas Eve. The Texans' regular season finale takes them to Indianapolis. Beating the Broncos and Colts should do the job, provided the Texans handle the Titans in their two upcoming meetings. That would assure the Texans at least 10 wins, with the Browns game and a date with the offensively offensive Jets both winnable matchups.

Of course there is the other side of the coin. Middle of the pack opponents view the Texans as a winnable matchup.
A loss to Denver and the Texans fall a game plus the tiebreaker back of the Broncos. After an atrocious 1-5 start to the Sean Payton coaching era, the Broncos head to Houston having ripped off five straight wins, throttling the Chiefs as one of them. However, four of the five wins happened in the Mile High City.

The Bronco offense is mediocre. Quarterback Russell Wilson is clearly over the hill. During the Broncos' win streak Wilson has thrown for more than 200 yards once. Quite a contrast to C.J. Stroud's active NFL rookie record streak of four straight 300 yard passing games. While “Let Russ Cook” is a thing of the past, during the win streak he is not messing up the meal. Over his last five games Wilson has thrown eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions.

In Wilson's heyday with the Seahawks, touch on the deep ball was one of his signatures. Delivering the goodies one might say (shoutout to Ciara!). The Broncos have a capable tandem of wide receivers in Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy. Brenham native Sutton has been the better of the two and has eight touchdown catches, only Tyreek Hill (10) and Mike Evans (nine) have more TD grabs this season. The Texans' secondary has been toasted by the long ball week in and week out. A good deal of blame for that goes to the defensive backs but the Texans' too often effete pass rush is at least as big a component. A QB needs time for receivers to get deep. Most QBs generally get that time against the Texans. This explains why the Texans claimed underachieving defensive end Derek Barnett off the waiver wire after the Eagles cut him earlier this week. The 2017 first round pick missed almost all of 2022 after tearing an ACL in the season opener. In 2021 he played in 16 games and mustered all of two sacks. This season Barnett's playing time was scarce.

On the flip side, Texans' pass catchers won't have to worry about illegal hits from suspended safety Kareem Jackson. The 35-year-old former Texan is a standup guy, but while not thought of as a head hunter like safeties could be in days gone by (think ex-Broncos Steve Atwater and John Lynch) Jackson has been guilty of multiple hits clearly against today's rules. Earlier this season Jackson had a four game suspension reduced to two games on appeal, then in his first game back made another flagrantly illegal if not flat out dirty helmet-to-helmet hit. No reduction on appeal of this four game suspension. No Jackson versus the Texans Sunday.

Looking for more Texans coverage?

Texans on Tap is the weekly Texan-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up Monday on the SportsMapTexans YouTube channel.

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