Houston plays two strong NL West teams

Big week ahead for Astros against stiffer competition

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With the win on Sunday to complete the sweep of the Mariners, the Astros completed a 5-1 week against the struggling Giants and Seattle at home. The winning performances were a welcome change for Houston, who the weekend prior had just wrapped up a 3-6 road trip capped off by a sweep by the division-leading A's to send them back home with a five-game losing streak looming over their heads.

With a Rangers loss against the Rockies in Denver on Sunday, the Astros, now on a four-game winning streak, now sit in sole possession of second place in the AL West, 4.5 games behind Oakland. They took care of business against teams that the Astros of recent seasons would have no trouble with giving a glimmer of hope that even with the mounting injuries and offensive struggles of some key players, notably Jose Altuve, that the 2020 Astros may still be one of the best in the league.

First up, four against the surging Rockies

This upcoming week will probably do more to show us what this team is capable of considering the team's status and the strength of opponents. Over the seven-game slate this Monday-Sunday, the Astros will first split a four-game series with the 13-8 Rockies in a home-and-home series, starting with two at Minute Maid Park, then two at Coors Field. If the current rotation stays as scheduled, here's how the series should line up:

  • Monday (COL @ HOU): Kyle Freeland (2-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. Brandon Bielak (2-0, 1.76 ERA)
  • Tuesday (COL @ HOU): Antonio Senzatela (3-0, 3.91 ERA) vs. Zack Greinke (1-0, 2.53 ERA)
  • Wednesday (HOU @ COL): Framber Valdez (1-2, 1.90 ERA) vs. Ryan Castellani (0-0, 1.04 ERA)
  • Thursday (HOU @ COL): Cristian Javier (2-1, 2.91 ERA) vs. German Marquez (2-3, 2.25 ERA).

This schedule puts two of Houston's younger arms on the mound in the thin Denver air on Wednesday and Thursday, and against a potent Rockies offense that averages over six runs per game at home. The good news for Houston, though, is that during this past homestand, it looked like their offense may have finally gotten up to speed, especially during their nine-run outburst of an inning on Friday in Yordan Alvarez's return.

A weekend in San Diego to wrap up the week

After the Rockies, Houston's next opponent is the 11-12 Padres, with a three-game series in San Diego. Despite being third in the tightly-contested NL West, the Padres sit tenth (the Astros are eighth) in the entire league in runs scored, showing their lineup potency. So between the Rockies and Padres, the Astros are likely in for a week of back-and-forth offense with their highest chance of coming out ahead being a week full of timely hits and several longballs per game.

Let's talk about injuries and Altuve

That leads to one of the ongoing question marks in terms of injury with the Astros. Michael Brantley, one of Houston's most reliable bats, landed on the IL over the weekend, and Yordan Alvarez was a late scratch for Sunday's game with knee discomfort, something he battled with during his rookie campaign in 2019. While this lineup can afford to miss a few games without one or two bats, if you take out a Brantley and Alvarez, and throw in a struggling Altuve, all of a sudden this lineup that is usually intimidating top-to-bottom all of a sudden looks a lot more beatable towards the bottom.

Speaking of, let's address the Altuve situation. After his recent struggles, he made, in my opinion, a seasoned and self-aware decision to approach his manager and request to be moved down in the lineup. That, to me, exhibits leadership and a team-above-self mentality. Public opinion may decide how Altuve's career gets evaluated as a whole in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. Still, if he's the selfless teammate he appears to be in situations like this, then getting a spark to turn his year around in Denver may come at just the right time.

In terms of injuries, on the pitching side, mystery abounds regarding what the Astros may have available for the rest of this shortened 60-game season. Jose Urquidy is ramping up in Houston's alternate site in Corpus Christi, but no concrete timetable is available on when he may join the team, and in what capacity. Both closer Roberto Osuna and ace Justin Verlander, after initially being reported as having to miss the remainder of the year with their respective injuries, have recently been described as "working out" with hopes to rejoin the team in some capacity this year. Time will tell, but until more optimistic updates become available on some of these notable arms, the Astros will have to press on with what they have.

Nearing the halfway point

This week can prove pivotal in the short season as the Astros try to keep pace with the A's for the division lead, and the Rangers who are making a bid to take advantage of the short season to get into the playoffs as well. Quite frankly, Houston cannot afford to have another disastrous road trip like they did last time. With lingering injuries and other struggles, they may not be able to make it up down the stretch as we are already approaching the halfway point of the 2020 regular season.

In fact, after Sunday's game against the Padres, the Astros will have already put 28 of the 60 games in the books. So having a good position in the division at that point may not only be desirable, but necessary, for the ultimate outcome of this season.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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