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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The Houston Texans have just a couple of practices before their preseason debut. Here are 11 observations from Tuesday’s workout.

1.The offense stunk on Tuesday. It was inconsistent and resembled more of last year’s disappointing performances than any other practices in this training camp.

2. Davis Mills and his receivers had a few miscommunications on Tuesday. Mills sailed a pass to nobody when he and Brandin Cooks weren’t on the same page. There were some other throws to nowhere in the day. It was something that hadn’t been present at all in training camp to this point.

3. There were a few “good coverage” notes on Tuesday. Not to say there was one specific player, but a handful of team-level efforts that led to the note.

4. It wasn’t all wrong from the offense. After a pass to nowhere Davis Mills and the offense bounced back. It was a second down during a team drill and Mills fired a pass to Chris Moore for six yards. Rex Burkhead would pick up a first down on a rush a play later. A non-positive play last year on first down doomed this team. That hopefully won’t be the case for this year’s team.

5. Chad Beebe is going into his fifth season in the NFL, his first with the Texans. The former Vikings pass catcher has flashed a few times in training camp. He has an uphill battle being new to the team but is trying to make himself a factor.

6. Phillip Dorsett had a big catch over the middle. Davis Mills stood back and delivered as the offensive line held up and Dorsett reeled it in for a huge gain. No defenders were around him. It is between Dorsett and Chris Moore for the chance to be the slot wideout opening day. With Dorsett’s return to practice, it is becoming a fun camp battle.

7.Speaking of returns to practice, Tytus Howard was back. Howard has his reps managed and after practice, offensive line coach George Warhop Howard was “getting his wind” back. When Howard was having his reps managed rookie tackle Austin Deculus played at right tackle. Deculus looks much more consistent than minicamp and OTAs.

8. Kenyon Green is still out with an injury. It is getting to a critical time where the time missed might prevent the first-rounder from starting week one. Max Scharping hasn’t looked bad in his chances with the first team. Offensive line coach George Warhop said they believe in Green and his ability and he has been in meetings to stay up to date.

9. Ka’imi Fairbairn was perfect in one of the special team periods. He drilled all five kicks, each further than the last, and was crushing the football.

10. Derek Stingley was very sticky in some early reps on Nico Collins. The third overall pick is so smooth when he is working. Later his coverage forced a throw from the offense that had no chance of being completed.

11. The play of the day was made by Derek Stingley. The offense was about five or six yards out of the end zone needing a touchdown to win. With six seconds left on the clock, any completed pass that wasn’t a touchdown was game over. Davis Mills dropped back a step and fired to Nico Collins who Stingley covered. The rookie kept the second-year player out of the end zone to earn the defense a win. This was one of the better Stingley days and he did a lot of work. At one point, it looked as though he and Rex Burkhead had some words and almost led to an offense and defense scuffle, but it stayed to just some shouting. The rookie shined today.

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