Team scrimmage news and notes

Deshaun Watson and Randall Cobb established chemistry during Texans' team scrimmage

Deshaun Watson and Randall Cobb established chemistry during Texans' team scrimmage
Photo Courtesy of the Houston Texans

Back up quarterback A.J. McCarron and running back Buddy Howell were left baffled by the results of the previous play. With the ball in their possession, there was a miss-communication between McCarron and Howell that resulted in a failed handoff. As the ball fell to the ground bouncing freely, outside linebacker Jacob Martin gained its possession to score a touchdown for the defense.

Head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien described Martin's defensive act as an example of the high "energy" he plays with, and it was one of several highlights that took place inside the NRG Stadium, Thursday night, during the Houston Texans' team scrimmage.

On a night when the Texans witnessed Deshaun Watson establishing chemistry with Randall Cobb on a few deep throws and an improved pass-rush defense, ended with their star quarterback along with Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas, and J.J. Watt leading a discussion at midfield about social injustice. The passionate team meeting was the pinnacle of Houston's team scrimmage.

"We spoke with players and we just felt that, relative to everything that's going on, we had some good discussions today — these are ongoing discussions," O'Brien said. "As a team, we decided that we want to go out there and scrimmage — get something done. We play two weeks from now, so we felt like that was important. We also felt like it was important to give the guys time to talk about things."

The uproar over the shooting of Jacob Blake — an unarmed African American male who was shot seven times by Wisconsin police on Sunday — reached its tipping point in the world of sports on Wednesday.

The Milwaukee Bucks set off a chain reaction by boycotting their playoff game against the Orlando Magic that resulted in an abundance of professional teams canceling their planned events. In the NFL, nine teams canceled practice — including the Washington Football Team, who postponed their scheduled team scrimmage on Thursday. But with their season set to begin against the Chiefs in less than two weeks, the Texans — as a team — felt it was best to proceed with their planned scrimmage while keeping the fight against social injustice at the forefront.

Stills, who was emotionally distraught during practice on Monday, had a performance that could have been detrimental to an opponent team's defense. He connected with Watson on several pass attempts, and recorded a touchdown in the process. The team scrimmage might have been enough for safety A.J. Moore to gain more playing time in 2020, as the third-year defensive back notched a sack and an interception on McCarron.

Unfortunately, Houston's team scrimmage did not end without a visit from the always unwanted injury bug. Wide receiver Chad Hansen sustained an apparent shoulder injury after taking a hit by cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. O'Brien said there will be more information on Hansen's injury on Friday.

As the players departed the field to head to the locker room, one significant theme stood out following Thursday's team scrimmage. The Texans' fight to help end systemic racism is just as serious as their quest to capture their first Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2020.

"I think Doc Rivers, what he said after their game really hit home for me," O'Brien said. "I think that's something that should be played on loop. It was so passionate and just so real. I just have a lot of respect for Doc. I think Andy Reid had some great things to say. I would say the big word is 'empathy' and how can we come together and figure out how to put actions in place that create change."

"I think that's what our players are talking about. Our players are very bright guys and we have a lot of good pros on this team. They wanted to scrimmage and they also wanted to talk about what's going on. So, we'll just keep working on it."

Absent from Thursday's scrimmage: Dylan Cole. Brandin Cooks. Isaiah Coulter. Keke Coutee. Phillip Gaines. Cullen Gillaspia. Jonathan Greenard. J.J. Watt.

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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