HARRIS COUNTY – HOUSTON SPORTS AUTHORITY INSIDER

Astros gear up for what they hope is another magical run

Can the Astros do it again? Courtesy photo

The Harris County – Houston Sports Authority Insider will take you inside Houston Sports each Friday because #WeAreHoustonSports!

We are just hours away from first pitch in the ALDS and the city is buzzing. Has been since, well, last October.

A World Series title will do that to you.

Think about it. That 2017 trophy has been just about everywhere in the sprawling metro area – at least once. People stood in long lines just for the opportunity to take a selfie with the iconic symbol of best in the game.

And rings? The Astros gave out a quarter of a million replica rings over the last few months and, thanks to social media, we know putting those giant rings on small fingers never gets old. Neither does trying on – or coveting – the one your neighbor just picked up at the final regular-season series at Minute Maid.

Just like their Astros, Houstonians aren’t about to settle. One title for this team? Not happening. They’re thinking at least one more.

The last team to do that? The Yankees, who won three in a row from 1998-2000.

Come this afternoon, Minute Maid will be rocking. And, if Astros president Reid Ryan has his way, the Cleveland Indians will be staring at a sold-out sea of orange. #NeverSettle orange.

When he joined Mayor Sylvester Turner, Astros owner Jim Crane and General Manager Jeff Luhnow at Wednesday’s pep rally in front of City Hall, it was hard to tell who has more excited – the fans or Turner and Ryan.

“It’s neat to see the connection this team has had with the community,’’ Ryan said. “And having all these people out here, it’s got me fired up and ready to go. So lets go play some baseball.

“I’ve seen this Astros fan base over my life. The ‘80s and ‘90s and to be able to revive this and see how much passion for this team there is in the community, it was an easy sell to ask them to wear orange.’’

It was an easier sell to pack the place.   

A year ago, the Astros started as a distraction for Harvey-weary Houstonians and became their Northern Star. No matter how tough things were in flooded neighborhoods where people lost everything, the Astros’ electric playoff run gave them hope. And something to cheer about. #HoustonStrong.

Justin Verlander, a last minute addition in 2017, was a question mark in a way. No questioning his talent, but was he a fit for Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel, Alex Bregman and the rest of the team? It didn’t take long to realize it was silly to even wonder about that one.

Every series at least one someone stepped up. Every game – ALDS, ALCS and World Series -- was roller-coaster scary, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs and don’t-dare-fall-asleep crazy. Game 2 and Game 5 of the Series? They’re probably still on your DVR along with Game 7.

Three up. Three down. Storied franchises, that is. The Yankees. The Red Sox. And finally the Dodgers – in Game 7 at Dodger Stadium.

No wonder why the Ryan-Crane-Luhnow brain trust chose #NeverSettle for this year’s motto.

The 2018 regular season wasn’t picture-perfect. There were injuries, batting slumps and bullpen questions. There were also 103 wins, Bregman and those dug-out stares, Verlander’s Cy Young-worthy stats, Altuve, George Springer, Tyler White (aka Great White Shark), Tony Kemp and, well, the whole lineup.

The big difference? Defending a title.

“I won’t lie,’’ Ryan said. “Once you’ve won it all and you realize everyone is gunning for you, the pressure to keep on top is there. It’s real. And this is a great group.

“Jeff’s not going to settle, I’m not going to settle and Jim’s not going to settle. It’s the reason we came up with that as our mantra this year. We wanted people to know we wanted to do more than win a World Series. We want to win multiple World Series.’’

Added Luhnow, “I think our players know what’s in front of them. We have enough that haven’t been there yet, who want to get back there and wanna do this. We’ve got to stay focused.

“We still have the same core, but we’re probably a more talented team than we were last year.’’

With pitching additions of closer Roberto Osuna, right-hander Ryan Pressly and surprise ALDS roster addition rookie Josh James, the Astros have an edge on the mount.

Pressly said they’re ready for the Indians.

“I’m eager,’’ Pressly said. “I’m ready to get this thing going. It’s the anticipation that’s killing me. Yes, there’s been homework. Every night been going over film, scouting reports and making sure we’re mentally prepared to get after these guys.

“Their lineup is mentally tough. They’re in the situation they’re in right now because they’re good. We’re going to go out and we’re going to enjoy it.”

A year ago, everyone took turns with big plays and big moments and Bregman gave us a glimpse of what he’s brought to the table this year – a season that even Altuve touts as an MVP one.

"He never ceases to amaze me with how controlled he is in the big moments, whether it's any part of the game, any situation, any pitcher, any pressure situation," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "He's had a ton of walk-offs, some of the biggest in franchise history."

That’s saying something on a team that was rotating highlight reel last fall.

But the Astros know this isn’t going to be easy. Starting today.

“They’re a good ball club,’’ Kemp said of Cleveland. “They’ve played us tough all season long. It’s going to be a good series. I’m pretty sure everyone is excited for it. It’s going to be a dogfight.’’

And it’s going to be loud. Or, as Kemp said, “energy at high volume.”

“Having the crowd into every single pitch, up on their feet making it loud, making it uncomfortable for the Indians . . .’’ Pressly said  pausing. “That helps us. (They’ll) be that 12th man, 11th man, 10th man or whatever you want to call it.’’

But the key? Kemp said it’s playing Astros baseball.

“We’re going to go in with a positive mindset,’’ Kemp said. “At the end of the day, it’s another day at the playground, another day to play baseball.

“But for a bigger meaning this time.”
Like #NeverSettle.


 

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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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