5 exciting players to keep an eye on as Astros hit stretch run

Lance McCullers recorded his 11th win on Monday. Photo by Getty Images.

After dropping back-to-back series, the Houston Astros enjoyed some home cooking as they bested the Seattle Marines two out of three contests at Minute Maid Park. With 23 games remaining, the Astros have an 81-58 record and currently have a 5.5 game lead over the aforementioned Mariners.

Houston played Seattle last week at T-Mobile Park, but forgot to bring their offense with them. The Mariners outscored the Astros 9-3 and won the series two games to one.

The Astros got some much-needed offensive help from some unexpected players, and All-Stars getting hot at the right time.

Marwin Gonzalez made his 2021 Astros debut on Monday when he came in for Alex Bregman as a defensive replacement. The former Astros' utility player signed a minor league deal on August 27th after being released by the Red Sox two weeks earlier.

Gonzalez player the majority of his career with the Astros from 2012 to 2018, helping them win a World Series in 2017 along the way. The utility player signed a 2-year $21 million dollar deal with the Twins in 2019. He played for Minnesota for two seasons before signing with the Red Sox in 2021 on a one-year deal worth $3 million.

For the first time since the 2018 ALCS, Gonzalez wore the Astros white uniform. He helped turn a double play in the 8th inning Monday night and received a standing ovation when he came to the plate.

Gonzalez followed up his debut by starting at third base on Wednesday afternoon and hit a two-run homer. It's as if he picked up right where he left off at Minute Maid Park.

It is undetermined if Gonzalez will make the Astros' playoff roster, but if he continues to play well, manager Dusty Baker could surely use a playoff veteran like Marwin somewhere in his lineup.

Gonzalez wasn't the only Astros' player to make a comeback, as pitcher Jose Urquidy took the mound twice during a 6-game span. He started on Friday, September 3rd against the Padres and Wednesday, September 8th. Although Urquidy pitched only 7.1 combined innings over those two starts, it is good to see the Astros' rotation getting closer to normalcy once Zack Greinke returns from his COVID-19 injury list stint.

Career-high win total for McCullers

Speaking of this rotation, starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. gave up four hits and two runs with seven strikeouts Monday night against the Mariners. McCullers improved his pitching record to 11-4. This is the first time McCullers has earned 11 wins in a season.

"For me it's about just giving us a good chance to win ... and working toward that AL West title," McCullers said.

The 27-year-old looks to be the ace of this rotation with Greinke, Framber Valdez and either Urquidy or Luis Garcia to round out the playoff pitching staff.

Jose Altuve also seems to be improving as the season is coming to an end. The All-Star second basemen found the power in his swing again when hit not one but two homers against the Mariners. His season total for home runs now matches his jersey number at 27. Altuve's batting average has remained above .270 for around two weeks and looks to continuously be a threat at the top of the lineup once the playoffs roll around.

Since his return from the IL with a quad injury, Alex Bregman's numbers continue to rise across the board. He's slashing a .385/.407/.654 line in the month of September and hit a game-tying home run Tuesday night against the Mariners.

Bregman's presence at the plate will further bolster this Astros' lineup and make them a formidable contender come October.

Up Next: Houston has a day off Thursday before Valdez takes the mound to start a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels on Friday night.

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Texans to release prominent player on defense

Zach Cunningham is on his way out of Houston. Composite image by Jack Brame.

According to multiple reports, the Texans are waiving LB Zach Cunningham. Cunningham was benched last Sunday for disciplinary reasons, which reportedly stemmed from a missed COVID test. Cunningham was also benched for a quarter earlier in the season for breaking team rules.

According to Ian Rapoport, the Texans will have to eat his 12.8 million dollar cap hit next season.

Cunningham started in seven of the 10 games he’s played this season recording 67 tackles and a forced fumble. The Texans are at a point where there's hardly anyone left on the team that has any name recognition with what's left of the fan base. And now the Texans have another position that will have to be addressed this offseason.

Cunningham will likely command a lot of attention from other teams interested in his services.

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