THE PALLILOG

Charlie Pallilo: On UH winning, the Rockets on a roll going into the break and Astros talk

James Harden and the Rockets are on a historic pace. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It didn’t quite wake up the echoes of Phi Slama Jama, but it was quite a night Thursday for the University of Houston basketball program. The Cougars taking down the 5th ranked team in the nation beating Cincinnati 67-62 doesn’t quite clinch an NCAA Tournament bid for UH, but the Coogs should feel free to order their dancing shoes. It will be just their second Big Dance appearance in the last quarter century.

Texas Southern’s Health and Physical Education Arena has served the Cougars well as a temporary home this season (and it’s a good thing because there’s a strong possibility the new Fertitta Center won’t be ready for the start of next season). UH is now 13-0 there. The joint wasn’t quite two-thirds full for Cincinnati, but the joint was jumpin’. Frankly the atmosphere was better than that at Toyota Center for most Rockets’ games—which is ridiculous given the Rockets’ magnificence this season, but whatever.

UH gets its 20th win of the season and has achieved something that even the final Phi Slamma Jamma team (1983-84) did not: beat 2 teams ranked 7th or higher in the national rankings. The win was the Cougars’ first over a Top 5 team since 1996.

Kelvin Sampson is simply an outstanding coach. His undersized team does the signature thing that most Sampson teams have done, reeeeally sink their teeth in on defense. Cincy is no offensive powerhouse, but the UH D absolutely suffocated the Bearcats who made one field goal over a 12 minute stretch in the second half.

Rockets on a roll

Behold the tedium of NBA All-Star Weekend! Nothing tedious about the Rockets. They are rightfully happy to have a week off, but it feels a bit like pushing the pause button on their tidal wave of momentum. Their second 10+ game winning streak of the season coupled with Golden State splitting its last eight games means for the first time ever the Rockets have the NBA’s best record at the break. 44-13! It would now take a borderline collapse for the Rockets to not break the franchise record for wins in a season. The ’93-’94 squad posted 58 wins. All these Rockets need to top that is a 15-10 finish.

Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright choosing the Rockets as buyout-free agents shouldn’t be that a big deal in bolstering the Rockets. Where is there regular significant playing time for either? Johnson played 31 minutes in his Rockets’ debut Wednesday, but Eric Gordon didn’t play and Trevor Ariza remains out. Wright should be an upgrade over Tarik Black as Clint Capela’s backup on the nights Nene sits out. The Johnson and Wright additions might be bigger in that the Rockets landing them means the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, or other possible Rockets’ playoff opponents didn’t get them.

When the league comes out of hibernation next Friday there will be two compelling Western Conference races over the final seven weeks of the regular season. The Rockets and Warriors are in a match race for the top seed, then there are eight teams chasing the other six spots. The Spurs sit third best in the West, but may presently have the 10th best team. No sign of Kawhi Leonard returning. LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili hobbled into the break. That the Spurs could wind up in the draft lottery just seems preposterous, but they are just three and a half games ahead of the 9th place Clippers and four and a half ahead of the 10th place Jazz who roared into the break on an 11 game winning streak. The Spurs’ preposterous run of 18 consecutive seasons winning at least 50 games may be coming to an end. Or, Leonard and Aldridge could both be healthy by mid-April and be a dangerous low seed.

Astros are back

We’re under six weeks to the Astros beginning their World Series Champion defense March 29th in Arlington. We’ll see how soon Manager A.J. Hinch settles upon Justin Verlander or Dallas Keuchel as his opening day starting pitcher. For the best of reasons there really are no compelling Astros’ storylines this spring. They are loaded both in the everyday lineup and on the pitching staff.

The silence is neither golden nor deafening re: absolutely no indication of the Astros attempting (or being rebuffed in an attempt) to talk contract extension with Jose Altuve. The reigning MVP is under contract this year as their 10th highest paid player (tied with Tony Sipp. Tony Sipp!). The Astros control Altuve with an option for 2019 that slates him to make less money than Pat Neshek among many, many others.

Buzzer Beaters

 1. Cake doughnuts are much better than yeast doughnuts   2. I would try the luge but not the skeleton.  3. Favorite NBA All Star Game memories:  Bronze-vacant  Silver-vacant  Gold-Magic Johnson in 1992

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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