At their best, the Astros are the best in the league

The Astros are the most well-rounded team in baseball right now

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite a tough 3-3 week where they dropped three of four in Minnesota against a tough Twins team, the huge display of power in Mexico over the weekend put things back in perspective; the Astros can beat anyone, anywhere. With the second full month of baseball underway, I took some time to break down what has been going right for the Astros so far in 2019:

Catching fire at the plate

Granted, the Astros just scored 24 runs over a two-game span against the Angels in Monterrey, but nonetheless, it's a sign that this potent offense is shaking off the early-season dust and finding their swing. If we would have been told going into the 2019 season that Jose Altuve would be hovering around a .250 average after 34 games, most of us probably would have considered that a symptom of the team at large struggling on offense. Instead, we've seen quite the contrary with other key players at the top of the lineup stepping up in big ways.

One of those key players is Michael Brantley. He has been nothing short of fantastic in an Astros uniform and currently leads the team in batting average at .336, which as of this writing was seventh-best in the majors. Pair that with his team second-best 24 RBIs and Houston's new cleanup hitter has fit in perfectly. Speaking of RBIs, the owner of first place on the team is George Springer, whose 27 RBIs and 10 home runs so far this year has him tied for eighth in the league in both categories.

Something that would pair well with these two guys getting hits is someone that can reliably get on base. Enter Alex Bregman. His .400 on-base percentage leads the team and is good for ninth-best in the American League. Much of that has to do with his patience at the plate which has led to 22 walks in 2019, tied for ninth-most in the league.

While the before-mentioned players come up with a lot of big hits, another noticeable part of this lineup that has had a surprisingly good start to the year is Josh Reddick. Reddick is not far behind Brantley in batting average, sitting at .330, and not far behind Bregman in on-base percentage, sitting at .380. After having his struggles at the plate last season he has had a hot start to 2019.

Throw all those bats in the mix with a rising Altuve and Carlos Correa, and it's no surprise that Houston's order has worked their way to the top of the league's leaderboard in team average at a combined .271, third-best in on-base percentage at .344, and third-lowest in strikeout percentage at 19.5%.

Don't forget the guys on the mound 

Although the offense may generate most of the highlights on any given night, the pitching staff for Houston deserves a lot of credit for where this team is now and can go the rest of the year.

It starts with ace Justin Verlander, who I won't break down in great detail here since I did just that last week, but for argument's sake let me just highlight that he's 5-1 with a 0.87 WHIP (third-best in the league), 60 strikeouts (third-best in the league), and .176 average against (fourth-best in the league). His biggest fault so far has been giving up too many home runs.

Behind him, you've got the league-leader in strikeouts, Gerrit Cole, who currently sits at 65 and is a start behind most of the leaders since he'll pitch tonight for his eighth game of the year. He's had a big bomb to his numbers after that horrible start against the Rangers earlier this year, but his numbers are still great and have him near the top of the charts.

While the 3-4-5 guys of Collin McHugh, Wade Miley, and Brad Peacock may not be as high on the leaderboards or putting up the kind of numbers that Charlie Morton did for the Astros, they have done their job on the whole of keeping Houston ahead or close enough for the bats to get them back in it.

Behind these starters is an excellent bullpen. The two relievers leading the way and having the most impact are Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna. Pressly passed Astros-great Roy Oswalt on Sunday by recording his 33rd-straight scoreless inning, giving him a new franchise record. While the streak is historic in and of itself, it's the result of inning after inning of Pressly being in command and imposing his will against batters. He's just another great addition the Astros have made in recent years that compliment the rest of the team, making him one of the best eighth-inning setup guys in the league.

Osuna, Houston's closer they acquired in 2018, has been phenomenal with his new team since joining after his suspension ended last year. While his signing and the situation surrounding it is still rightly debated when you look purely at his work on the mound it has been electric. He has not blown a save since joining Houston, and in 2019 he's allowed just one unimportant run in his 14.1 innings of relief to go along with just three hits and zero walks and eleven strikeouts.

Again, when you put all these pieces together, you get a team ERA of 3.57 (fifth-best in the league), 9.44 strikeouts per 9 innings (eighth-best in the league), and 2.57 walks per 9 innings (best in the league) which if you want to summarize by WAR (wins above replacement), comes out to a 4.7, fifth-best in the league.

Looking ahead: is there even a ceiling?

While their play so far may not have them as the undisputed best team in baseball, all indications are there that they are without question in the conversation, and could easily win a series against any team. It will be interesting to look back at some of these points at both the half-way point of the year when many of these guys are likely named to the All-Star team, then again at the end of the season when they put all their effort into the playoff push and beyond.

With this Astros roster, the only ceiling we may be discussing in October could be Minute Maid Park's, and where to hang another World Series banner.

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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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