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How the landscape in Houston sports is giving off 2017 vibes

Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve
Something similar could be on the horizon. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
Justin Verlander and Jose Altuve

There are good times on the horizon. If things go well, all three major pro sports teams in Houston will be in contention for playoff appearances at the same time. I know, I know. The Texans are not good right now and just traded a franchise quarterback. The Rockets just finished with the worst record in the league for the second year in a row. The Astros are back but lost a top star for the second consecutive offseason. Things are fragile, but there is a silver lining for all three. This hasn't been the case since October 2017.

Back then, things were looking up all across the board for every franchise of the major three. The Texans had drafted their franchise quarterback. While they'd end that season 4-12, they went into the bye week 3-3. After a half of football by Tom Savage in the opening game, Deshaun Watson came in and showed why he was drafted so high. He tore his ACL after the week eight loss to Seattle and that sent the season into a tailspin. Despite an abrupt end to their hopes, that team had a bright future.

The 2016-17 Rockets had come off a .500 season previously and would begin that season showing some promise after signing some new pieces to go along with James Harden. They'd finish 3rd in the West losing to the Spurs in the conference semis. It was the beginning of a period of play in which they would be thought of as contenders. Meanwhile, the Astros were busy winning the 2017 World Series and bringing this city its first major pro sports title since the '94-'95 Rockets. They were young, refreshing, and very talented. This was the first of five consecutive ALCS or more appearances.

I see something similar on the horizon. The Astros may have lost a couple stars, but they're still rolling. Some key guys are getting healthy, and the core is older, but this team still has the firepower to contend. They entered this season as a +1000 to win it all which was the third-best odds on the board at the time. The Rockets have a future star in Jalen Green, as well as a couple other guys that show some potential. Owning a potential top three pick in a loaded top half of the draft and armed with an additional first rounder could help propel this team into contention a lot sooner than what most thought. The Texans now own two first rounders in this draft and the next two after that. Rebuilds in the NFL are aided by wise decisions on free agents and drafting well. If they can take advantage of the opportunities in front of them, they too will be back in the playoff picture sooner than later.

In life, we sometimes have to take a few steps back before we can truly move forward. You'll get knocked down and taken off the path you're on many times. What defines you is how many times you continue to get up and persevere despite your circumstances. Each of these teams has had some challenges lately. Some have had more than others. However, I can see the Texans, Rockets, and Astros all giving the city of Houston something to be proud of at the same time very soon.

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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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