Astros look to put pressure back on Rays after huge walk-off win

Astros third baseman Carlos Correa celebrates after a big home run in game two of the ALCS
The Astros can even the series with a win on Friday. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Astros roundup: Correa and Diaz nearing a return, the trade deadline looms, and more

Any idea that more pressure now sits on the Rays than the Astros heading into Friday's game six of the American League Championship Series, is of course silly. Only the Astros face elimination in game six. But the pressure scale sure is a lot more balanced than it was a couple of days ago.

If the Astros square it up and force a game seven, the starting pitchers would combine for quite a different game seven memory than the two already etched in Houston's sports memory forever. Lance McCullers would start opposite Charlie Morton.

Only half the job is done toward pulling off turning an 0-3 series deficit into a 4-3 victory. It is amazing that winning even the two games after trailing three-zip is a massive achievement. In the 37 prior baseball bests of seven that started 3-0, only the 2004 Red Sox wound up winning four straight to take the series. The Astros join the '04 Sox and just two others among the 38 shoved into the 0-3 hole to even force a game six. The two others lost game six: the Braves to the Padres in 1998 and the following year the Mets to the Braves.

Fox is rooting like mad for the Astros to pull it off. Given the alternatives the far and away most desirable World Series matchup for drawing eyeballs is Astros-Dodgers for the storyline (and two larger markets) of a rematch of the cheaters vs. cheatees 2017 Fall Classic. The Braves are in a strong position (up three games to one) to deny the Dodgers the NL end of the World Series stick.

As Carlos Correa continues to add layers to his huge postseason moments cake, reminder that he hit all of five homers in the 60 game regular season. He's at six (and counting?) in 11 postseason games this year.

Daryl Morey and the Rockets part ways

Daryl Morey working out a buyout of his contract with Rockets' owner Tilman Fertitta is quite the interesting development. Morey's 13 season tenure as General Manager was very good, but never achieved greatness. The Warriors' dynasty was a burr in Morey's saddle, but zero NBA Finals appearances much less an NBA championship precludes any stamp of greatness on Morey's run. That is a far cry from failure. Among highlights on the Morey ledger: Zero losing seasons, seven seasons winning at least 53 games, two Western Conference Finals appearances. No other NBA team has made the playoffs each of the last eight seasons. However, over those eight seasons six different teams won it all while the Rockets never played for it all.

Promoted from within, Rafael Stone will work as GM at a much lower salary than his predecessor. That's not breaking Fertitta's heart. Stone gets the keys (if he really has them) at a challenging time for the franchise. In an either/or scenario the Rockets are more likely to miss the playoffs in the next season or two than they are to win an NBA title. Who knows how 31-year-old James Harden and soon to be 32 year old Russell Westbrook will mesh with the new Head Coach. The Rockets are on the hook with each for more than 44 million dollars per season over the next three seasons. And with Eric Gordon for over 18 million per thanks to the absurd extension Morey granted him. The Rockets have zero good young players, defining that here as anyone who'd be thought of as a possible top three player on a title contender. Bubble violator Danuel House is closest and at 27 he's not young. That is not exciting. Morey has dealt away multiple first round picks going forward. So while Morey did a fine job overall, some piece in the jigsaw puzzle of his life and professional decision is getting out before things could seriously deteriorate.

Texans clash with Titans this Sunday

Beating the Jaguars in the first game after the firing of Bill O'Brien was nice and fun for the Texans but not exactly a grand accomplishment. The Jaguars are terrible. They have 16 rookies on their roster, and played last week minus their best pass rusher, linebacker, and cornerback. Still, any port in a storm. It's this week the Texans can breathe a little actual hope into this season should they upset the Titans Sunday in Nashville. The 4-0 Titans are only three point favorites. Seems low, but the Titans have a quick turn around from routing the Bills on Tuesday night.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Yogi Berra once said "90 percent of baseball is half mental." See Jose Altuve throwing the ball right now.

2. Yogi could have said "momentum is all yours until you don't have it." See Astros-Rays.

3. Most dramatic in the moment Astros' game ending home runs: Bronze-Correa game two vs. Yankees 2019 Silver-Jeff Kent game five vs. Cardinals 2004 Gold-Jose Altuve pennant winner over Yankees 2019

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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