Houston is still seeking home-field for the ALDS

Astros drop opener of final regular-season series to Oakland

Framber Valdez allowed four runs including two homers in his final regular-season start on Friday. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

With the division in hand, the Astros had another magic number to go after in the final regular-season series, and that was one win or a White Sox loss to ensure they'd have home-field advantage in the ALDS. Neither would come on Friday night, as Oakland would put together big innings to take the opener of the three-game series.

Final Score: A's 8, Astros 6

Astros' Record: 93-67, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Sean Manaea (11-10)

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez (11-6)

Oakland tags Valdez with four runs

After a 1-2-3 first by Framber Valdez, Houston got on the board first in the bottom of the inning. A leadoff triple by Jose Siri set up an RBI single by Aledmys Diaz, making a 1-0 game. The one-run lead held until the top of the third, when a leadoff walk by Tony Kemp later turned into an RBI single, making it 1-1. Things got worse from there for Valdez, who allowed a go-ahead leadoff homer in the top of the fourth, then a two-run shot in the top of the sixth to end his night. His final regular-season line: 5.0 IP, 4 H, 4 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 2 HR, 82 P.

Runs keep coming for the A's

Phil Maton was Houston's first reliever, retiring the three batters he faced after coming in for Valdez to finish the sixth. The Astros got one run back in the bottom of the inning, with a two-out walk setting up an RBI double by Jake Meyers to make it a two-run game.

Cristian Javier was next out of the bullpen, and he worked around a single for a scoreless seventh. Oakland figured him out in the eighth, though, putting up a four-run inning to push the lead back to six runs on a couple of errors and an RBI single and RBI ground-rule double.

Astros drop the opener

Jake Meyers notched his second RBI of the night in the bottom of the eighth, driving in Carlos Correa, who led the frame off with a single, making it 8-3. Jason Castros brought the Astros back to within two runs in the next at-bat, getting a three-run homer to cut the lead to 8-6. Yimi Garcia held the score there with a scoreless top of the ninth, sitting down Oakland in order, including two strikeouts.

Houston started a rally attempt in the bottom of the ninth, getting two on base to bring the winning run to the plate, but would come away empty as Oakland would take the opener. The White Sox winning earlier in the evening leaves the Astros magic number at 1 to clinch home-field in the ALDS.

Up Next: The middle game of this series will get started at 6:10 PM Central on Saturday. Paul Blackburn (1-3, 4.71 ERA) will be on the mound for Oakland, while Houston will hand the ball to Jake Odorizzi (6-7, 4.14 ERA).

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Willson Contreras could give the Astros some extra pop in the lineup. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

“The Hot Stove League” is the nickname given to Major League Baseball's offseason. In particular, the free agent signing period in late November/early December. Trades are also made during this period. Now that Astros' owner Jim Crane has ousted all opposition to his idea of how things should be run, he's free to do things the way he sees fit.

He opened it by not hiring a general manager to replace James Click. Instead, he opted for a committee of assistant GMs. Those guys are assisted by some special advisors, like former Astros great Jeff Bagwell. Crane likes and wants to take a big swing at things. He'd probably hit about .250 with 30-plus home runs every season. Can't leave out his guaranteed 80-100 strikeouts. Typical power hitter. It's all or nothing, except Crane has been making great contact and knocking some things out of the park.

Signing Jose Abreu was an example. Yuli Gurriel looked as if he was losing the battle with “Father Time” during the regular season. This was an insurance policy at first, and designated hitter. Another prime example is their reported interest in C/DH/LF Willson Contreras. His bat would be a major upgrade over past Astro catchers. Although Martin Maldonado may not be going anywhere, having a quality bat to relieve him is key. Add the fact that he plays some outfield, and he's almost a “two birds with one stone” type of signing.

Abreu may be 35 years old, but he's coming off a year hitting .304 with 15 home runs. Contreras may be the younger of the two at 30, but his .243 average hurts the fact that he hit 22 home runs. Both sport an OPS above .800 for their careers. Bagwell said he wants Yordan Alvarez to play left field 45% of the time. The other 55% can be Contreras, Chas McCormick (assuming Jake Meyers is still in the mix for center field), and whoever else they sign or bring up from Sugar Land. When Contreras isn't in left, he needs to be behind the plate or hitting DH. I'd really love the idea of him sitting under Maldonado's learning tree for a year and taking over catcher long-term. Not many can be the catcher "Machete" is, but hitting 50 points better than him has its advantages.

Then there's the reported interest other teams have in Justin Verlander. Supposedly, the Mets have met with him via Zoom. The Dodgers are interested and are seemingly the leaders in the clubhouse to sign him. However, I wouldn't count Crane and crew out. He may come to JV last minute and offer him something comparable in order to keep him around. He strikes me as the type of guy who'll keep his plays close to the vest, then make a Godfather type of offer. He negotiated Verlander's last deal with the team himself. Coming off a World Series win, Cy Young win, and opting out of said deal, Verlander is most likely looking to get one final payday that'll also land him on a contender.

Having a winner is one thing. Having a winner committed to winning long-term is another. Crane wants to strike while the iron is hot. Sure, he wants his franchise to be sustainable. But he also wants to keep the World Series window open as long as possible. Kyle Tucker's next deal will be one to watch. Having an embarrassment of riches on the pitching staff means you have trade bait. Keep an eye on old Jimmy Crane. I think he might be the best thing to hit Houston sports in quite some time.

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