THE PALLILOG

Charlie Pallilo: On the Texans, Altuve, the Hall of Fame and more

Jose Altuve picked up more hardware. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Mercifully, the Texans’ season finally ends Sunday. With DeAndre Hopkins sidelined by a calf injury is there any possible reason to subject oneself to watching the Texans at the Colts? 4-11 at 3-12, yippee!  After splitting up the last eight AFC South division titles four apiece, the Texans and Colts are now the division’s Dumb and Dumber. Both are banking on a healthy franchise quarterback as their salvation next season.  Both have oodles of free agent dollars to spend, the Colts have more. The Colts also have a top five draft pick in every round, while the Texans will twiddle their thumbs until round three.

One thing on the line Sunday, who gets to play the Cleveland Browns next year. If the Texans come through with a loss, they get the AFC South last place designation for scheduling by virtue of losing both games to the likewise 4-12 Colts. Sunday’s winner draws the Bengals next season. What drama!

The Texans were thoroughly humiliated Christmas Day. I don’t even mean the Steelers thrashing them 34-6, that was feeding the most feeble of flies right into a spider’s web.  I mean that If we accept the dubious position that the NRG Stadium roof closed makes for a louder building, were the Texans too obtuse to realize that keeping the roof closed Monday only enhanced the Steelers’ crowd noise advantage? So, the Texans have lost their last two games by final scores of 45-7 and 34-6. The winless Browns most lopsided loss this season is 35-10.

No small feat

The Associated Press this week named Jose Altuve its Male Athlete of the Year (swimmer Katie Ledecky took the female honor). If we accept as one definition of over the hill as being past one’s absolute peak of performance, there’s a good chance that at 27 years old Altuve is over the hill. I mean, how could his 2018 or any subsequent year equal his 2017? American League batting champion (for a 3rd time), American League Most Valuable Player Award winner, and World Series Champion. In Altuve’s case it’s not a hill anyway, it’s a mountain of accomplishments.

The AP started awarding Athlete of the Year in 1931. Lance Armstrong won four years in a row (2002-05) while cheating his way to Tour de France titles. Other winners include Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones. Juicers all.

Looking ahead

As this column posted, we were exactly three months from the Astros’ season opener against the Texas Rangers March 29th up in Arlington. If you are manager A.J. Hinch to whom are you handing the ball to pitch game one of 162? Dallas Keuchel has had the honor the last three openers and the Astros won all three, two of them in shutouts. Do you stick with Dallas or is Justin Verlander quite simply the ranking man on the staff and so he goes? Verlander started nine of the last 10 Detroit Tigers’ openers, only missing in 2015 when he began the season on the disabled list.  My guess is it’s Keuchel, in what may well be his last Opening Day in an Astros’ uniform.

Hall pass?

Speaking of Barry Bonds, he is again on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the Class of 2018. So is Roger Clemens. Each is in his sixth of 10 maximum years on the ballot. Last year each for the first time crossed the 50 percent threshold of thumbs up votes (75 percent is necessary for election). I would vote for both. To me infamy is a subset of fame, plus both Bonds and Clemens were made men Hall of Famers before their phases of PED use, real and/or alleged, kicked in. Also back on the ballot: Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, and Gary Sheffield. All amassed Hall-worthy numbers. None has any chance of election.

Five other former Astros besides Clemens are among the total of 33 players on the ballot: Jeff Kent, Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge, Aubrey Huff, and Carlos Lee. Save the spit take on the last two! All players who play in 10 different Major League seasons go on the ballot five years after retirement. Those who don’t receive at least five percent of votes are dropped from the ballot the next year.

Those joining Modern Era committee electees Alan Trammell and Jack Morris in the Class of 2018 will be named on January 24th.  The no-brainer on the ballot for the first time is Chipper Jones. Jim Thome’s case is hard to deny. The near-missers from last year who should get the call in ’18 are Vladimir Guerrero and Trevor Hoffman.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Your choices for Astros’ 2018 MVP: Altuve, Carlos Correa, Other    2. I really hope Stephen Curry is healthy when the Warriors visit the Rockets Thursday    3.  Best non-Astros sporting events of 2017:  Bronze-Super Bowl LI, Patriots from down 28-3 to 34-28 OT win over Falcons   Silver-Clemson 35 Alabama 31 National Championship game   Gold-Federer/Nadal Australian Open Final   

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These next six games will be very telling. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Houston has six games left in the 2022 regular season, two three-game series in which they need just one more win, or a Yankees loss, to secure the top seed for the AL side of the postseason bracket. They've accomplished what they set out to do over the 162-game drudge that is the regular season, so you're likely to see them use the opportunity to get some players off their feet in the remaining games.

Even so, having one of the best teams means that while putting out a lineup with some starters missing, they can still beat most teams on any given day. So then, what could that mean for the teams still vying for postseason spots or positioning in the remaining games?

Affecting the NL playoffs

It's a relatively sure bet that if they haven't locked up that top seed by the time they enter the final three games, they will before that last series is over. That means that when the Phillies come to Minute Maid Park to close out the season next week, Philadelphia will have much higher stakes in those games than Houston.

Under the expanded playoff format starting this season, the two best teams in each league receive a bye, while the remaining four teams square off in a Wild Card series, with all those games taking place at the better seed's stadium. That means teams will be very motivated to secure their best Wild Card positioning.

As of now, the Phillies hold just a half-game lead over the Brewers for the third and final Wild Card spot for the National League. Things could change this weekend, but whether they still lead or have fallen back and have ground to makeup, the games will matter to them against the Astros.

They also sit 2.5 games behind the Padres, meaning that Philadelphia could potentially be looking at a chance to jump into the second Wild Card spot. However, it's questionable if that's an envious position or not. With the juggernaut battle between the Mets and Braves coming down to the wire, with one team winning the NL East and a first-round bye and the other starting with home-field advantage in a Wild Card series, whoever gets the second Wild Card spot is going to be heading to face a really tough, and potentially angry, team on the road.

It will make things interesting for the Phillies when they face the Astros. They could be playing for their playoff lives or jockeying for position. Either way, the games will be meaningful.

Affecting the AL playoffs

There's a similar scenario at play for the American League side of things with the Astros' three-game series against the Rays this weekend. Just like the Phillies, the Rays enter the weekend holding on to the third and final spot in the AL Wild Card race.

Tampa Bay is only 0.5 games back of the Mariners for the second spot and two games back of the Blue Jays for the first Wild Card spot. Farther behind, the Orioles still have a chance for something crazy to happen, sitting five games behind.

So based on the result of their series with the Astros and how the other teams fare this weekend and in the final stretch of games, the Rays have a range of outcomes that could cause havoc in the AL bracket. They could end up taking the top Wild Card spot and hosting a series, traveling to face the Blue Jays, Mariners, or Guardians, or, less likely, missing the playoffs altogether.

This variance in positioning could have ramifications for the Astros directly in the ALDS round as well. The Astros are likely to be favored regardless of the three potential teams they face; however, some matchups would make things easier.

Houston went 2-4 against the Blue Jays this year and are currently up 3-0 on the Rays with the three games remaining in the season series. And while the Astros took the season series 12-7 against division-rival Seattle, that could give the Mariners all the more reason to be ultra-motivated for the ALDS if they faced the Astros.

So, while the Astros may not have any direct milestones to play for other than locking up their top seed, these remaining six games will have plenty of storylines and drama to follow for them and their opponent.

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