Something is off with the Astros, but it's not what you think

Fans aren't following the rules. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Four Houston Astros, three of them key starters - Alex Bregman, Martin Maldonado and Yordan Alvarez – have come off the COVID injured list and will be in the lineup tonight against the Colorado Rockies. Utility player Robel Garcia also will be available, while Astros star Jose Altuve remains sidelined on the COVID list.

The returning players missed four games because of baseball's COVID protocols, during which the Astros slid into last place in the American League West.

Meanwhile, the COVID positivity rate in Houston jumped to 10.2-percent the past 14 days, the biggest uptick in several weeks, according to the Houston Health Department. The positivity rate in Harris County stands at 8.9, keeping the county at a Red COVID threat level. Hospital usage, new cases and positivity rates continue to be too high for the threat level to be lowered to Orange.

The Astros are averaging 18,812 fans for their six home games this season. Most have not been wearing a mask. The roof was closed four of those games.

Before Opening Day, I asked an Astros official, what will happen if a fan violates Major League Baseball's directive that fans must wear a mask at all times in the ballpark, except when they're actively eating or drinking? The official said that MLB rules give teams the authority to eject fans from the stadium if they don't abide by the mask rule. Obviously that is not happening.

If the Astros ejected every fan who isn't wearing a mask, Minute Maid Park would be a ghost town, like it was last season during the height of the pandemic.

Fans simply are not following MLB's COVID health and safety rules. On opening night, TV cameras showed Astros owner Jim Crane and Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell sitting behind home plate in their Diamond Club seats not wearing a mask. It was not a good look.

While it's true that COVID infection, ICU occupancy and death numbers are falling in Houston and Harris County, they're not at the point where the Centers for Disease Control and MLB feel it's safe to relax safety guidelines.

"The CDC recommends people wear face masks in public settings, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

Like at Minute Maid Park. The Astros are not requiring social distancing in most field level sections. The team has some sections providing social distancing between fans, but most of them are in the upper levels.

Taking or not taking the vaccine, like wearing a mask, shouldn't be a political thing. In fact, the vaccine may be the only thing President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump seem to agree on.

Biden has made vaccine availability a cornerstone of his administration. The U.S. currently is vaccinating more than 3 million people a day. Monday night, Trump went on Fox News and urged his followers to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated.

"I encourage people to take it, I do," Trump said. "I had it (the virus) and I took it. They want me to do a commercial saying take the vaccine. They think that's very important and I'd certainly do it."

In fact, Trump is so proud of his Operation Warp Speed to develop the vaccine, he thinks the shot should be called "the Trumpcine."

Only about 25 percent of adults in Harris County are fully vaccinated. That will rise with more vaccine arriving here each week. Getting the vaccine couldn't be easier. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Monday, "You can now simply show up at NRG Park and get your vaccine at Harris County's largest and incredibly efficient site. If you're 16+, enter via Gate 16A off Main Street. Currently no wait, only friendly staff there to greet you."

Vaccine shots are free, no appointments or registration required. You just have to be in a car, same rule as McDonald's drive-throughs. If you don't have access to a car, call the county office and somebody will pick you up, drive you to NRG Park for your shot and take you home. Whether you can convince your chauffeur to stop for a Big Mac is up to you.

Gov. Greg Abbott has ruled out "vaccine passports," which would permit businesses, including sports teams, to ban non-vaccinated people in Texas. It's a different story elsewhere. New York State has an "Excelsior Pass," essentially an online vaccine passport. The Buffalo Bills have announced a "No Vaccine = No Entry" policy for the 2021 season. Only fans who can prove that they're fully vaccinated will be allowed to attend games at Highmark Stadium. The same rule will apply to Buffalo Sabres hockey games next season.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, "some people are like, 'well, that's unfair,' but there's no God-given right to attend a football game. You have no guaranteed rights in the Constitution to inflict illness on other people, just like you have no guaranteed right in the Constitution to attend a Buffalo Bills football game.

"Our goal is to have 100-percent full house for the Bills and Sabres starting in the fall. And that's ensuring everybody who enters the facility, the fans, the staff are fully vaccinated."

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Zack Greinke earned his 10th win of the season in Sunday's finale agains the Rangers. Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

With the first two wins of the series under their belt, the Astros entered Sunday looking to take care of business before heading on the road. Despite the Rangers taking the first lead of the day, the Astros responded on offense and defense to erase the deficit to get the victory.

Final Score: Astros 3, Rangers 1

Astros' Record: 61-39, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Zack Greinke (10-3)

Losing Pitcher: Dennis Santana (0-1)

Greinke, with some help, notches a quality start

Zack Greinke was doing well in the early goings of Sunday's finale. Despite allowing back-to-back singles to start the game, he stranded both runners to finish the top of the first. He followed that by erasing two more runners in the second, starting a stretch of eight straight batters which he would retire to make it through one out in the top of the fifth without allowing a run.

Texas finally added a blemish to his day at that point, getting a solo homer to grab their first lead in weeks. Greinke rebounded from it, sitting down the next two batters to finish the frame, then posted a 1-2-3 sixth. He returned for the top of the seventh, but would end his day with a struggle, loading the bases with no outs on a single, hit batter, and walk. That prompted Dusty Baker to bring in Cristian Javier, who saved Greinke's stat line by getting a strikeout and double play to keep the Rangers from scoring. Greinke's line: 6.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 86 P.

Houston grabs the lead

Houston's starter would leave in line for the win, thanks to the work of Cristian Javier, but also some timely offense in the two innings prior. With not much going for them in the first four innings, the Astros tried to take advantage of Chas McCormick being on base in the bottom of the fifth, sending him for a potential hit and run with Abraham Toro swinging.

That turned into two runs, with McCormick able to slow his run as Toro would launch a two-run go-ahead homer to erase the Rangers lead quickly. They extended the lead to two runs in the next inning, with Yordan Alvarez working a walk and then later scoring on an RBI single by Kyle Tucker, making it 3-1.

Astros finish the sweep

After cleaning up the inherited mess in the top of the seventh, Javier remained on the mound in the top of the eighth and made it through a 1-2-3 inning to give him six outs against five batters. With it still a two-run game in the top of the ninth, Ryan Pressly entered for the save opportunity. He notched it, sitting down the Rangers 1-2-3 to finish the sweep, handing Texas their twelfth straight loss.

Up Next: The Astros will head out west for an eight-game road trip starting with a three-game set with the Mariners kicking off at 9:10 PM Central on Monday. In the opener, Luis Garcia (7-5, 2.86 ERA) for Houston is slated to go opposite Darren McCaughan (0-0, 1.80 ERA), who will make his second career appearance and first start for Seattle.

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