Jeremy Pena has been a bright spot for Houston. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.
After the extended offseason due to the lockout between owners and players, we have finally returned to regular-season baseball. Houston's year has kicked off with a nine-game road trip, with six of those in the book and the Astros sporting a 4-2 record.
Over that span, we've had our first look at the current rotation and different permeations of the batting order. Here are a few things we've learned in the very early goings of 2022:
So far, so good for Peña
There's no question that there were a lot of expectations on the shoulders of 24-year-old Jeremy Peña before opening day. He's been a bright spot so far for the Astros; despite going 0-for-4 on opening day, he has since had seven hits over twenty at-bats, including his first career homer in the second game of the season, where he had a three-hit performance.
Baseball is the best.
Jeremy Peña hits his first career home run during a live interview with his parents during the at-bat. pic.twitter.com/GWE6IfiIRT
— Houston Astros (@astros) April 9, 2022
He's also one of the few players that have been in the lineup all six games so far, as Dusty Baker has used the early part of the season to continue to ramp players back to normal, saying, "Whether you like it or not, I've said it repeatedly, we're still in spring training." Although Peña has one error so far at shortstop, he has otherwise been fine defensively, showing he's worthy of being the everyday shortstop in place of Carlos Correa.
Verlander looks like himself in return
.@JustinVerlander is back!
He starts his first game since 2020 with a strikeout of the AL MVP. pic.twitter.com/luYd1C72PF
— MLB (@MLB) April 10, 2022
Although a slow night at the plate behind him resulted in him starting the season with a 0-1 record, Justin Verlander's first start since 2020 was good against the Angels in Anaheim. He showed normal velocity and held Los Angeles to one run on three hits while striking out seven over five innings of work.
Like most pitchers in the MLB in their first start of the year, he was held to a pitch count of around 80, which got him through the five frames. His next start will be Saturday in Seattle against the Mariners, where he'll hope to get more run support to get his first win of the year.
Speaking of pitching
Houston's pitching staff has done very well to start 2022, as they currently sit as the best team in the league with a combined 1.69 ERA. Framber Valdez was given the ball on Opening Day and provided the Astros a shutout performance over 6.2 innings but struggled in his second start. It took him 75 pitches to get through just three innings while allowing a run to the Diamondbacks.
Jake Odorizzi went four frames in his first start, giving up two runs but not factoring into the decision, Jose Urquidy had an efficient five-inning, one-run start on 72 pitches, while Luis Garcia rounded out the first trip through the rotation with four innings of scoreless pitching in Arizona in the fifth game of the season. The bullpen has also been impressive, with returning arms partnering with newcomers like Hector Neris and Rafael Montero, who have been solid additions thus far.
Lance McCullers Jr. was also able to play catch this week, showing a promising step towards returning to the rotation at some point in the future to bolster Houston's pitching staff further.
Draw your own conclusions about the offense
While a slow night at the plate resulted in the shutout that earned them the first loss of the year, the Astros have put up 4.8 runs per game in the other five, fueled in part by a strong 13-6 win against the Angels on a night when they had six homers. The other games haven't been to that same level, but they've also been essentially running a different lineup every day as players get days off.
Though starting the year off slow at the plate is not foreign to Houston, it's hard to tell if that's the case so far with such a small sample size of six games. Alex Bregman received AL Player of the Week honors after his hot start in Anaheim, looking like he is truly healthy and ready to get back into potential MVP conversations this year. Jose Altuve has had a rough go of things, currently sitting at a .150 average, while Kyle Tucker sits at .130 and Yordan Alvarez at .143, not the averages they'd hope for six games in. Let's not forget, though, that the Astros won't have their first home game of the season until Monday, which will be their first chance to take advantage of the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park. It's not time to panic just yet.
They may not have all been lopsided seven-run wins, yet all in all, the Astros would be more than happy to continue winning games at the 4-2 clip they have started the year with, as that would put them on track to have a 100-plus win season.
Now it is Houston's turn at the top of The Associated Press Top 25 men's college basketball poll.
The Cougars moved to No. 1 for the first time this season in Monday's latest poll, climbing one spot to end the six-week stay of reigning national champion Connecticut. Houston (24-3) became the fifth team to hold the top spot this season.
Purdue rose one spot to No. 2, while the Huskies’ loss to Creighton dropped them to third in a poll that included South Florida cracking the rankings for the first time in program history.
Kelvin Sampson's Cougars spent seven weeks at No. 1 last year, their first stint at the top since the “Phi Slama Jama” days during the 1982-83 season with a team featuring future NBA greats like Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Now they're back, playing in a new conference home (the Big 12) with the same defense-first formula that has Houston leading the country in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency (87.1 points allowed per 100 possessions).
“Our guys are tough,” Sampson said after an overtime win at Baylor. “We're not always pretty. But last time I checked this is not a beauty contest.”THE TOP TIER
The top 10 featured the same universe of teams, though in reshuffled order.
Tennessee moved up a spot to No. 4 for its highest ranking of the season, followed by Marquette. Arizona, Kansas, Iowa State, North Carolina and Duke rounded out the top 10.RISING AND FALLING
While there was plenty of movement, there were no major leaps among the week's 12 rising teams. No. 11 Auburn and No. 12 Creighton had the biggest jumps of a modest three spots, while four others teams rose two positions.
No. 24 Florida was the only team to hold its position from last week.WELCOME ABOARD
South Florida has been a surprise in its first season under Amir Abdur-Rahim, who led a remarkable turnaround at Kennesaw State from a one-win season to an NCAA Tournament bid last year. Now he's helped the Bulls (21-5) go from being picked ninth in the American Athletic Conference to their first-ever ranking at No. 25.
The other two additions are familiar: No. 22 Utah State spent five straight weeks in the poll earlier this season, while No. 23 Gonzaga is back in after falling out for six straight weeks to end that program's first stretch among the unranked since the 2015-16 season.FAREWELL (FOR NOW)
Colorado State (No. 22), Texas Tech (No. 23) and BYU (No. 25) fell out from last week.CONFERENCE WATCH
The Southeastern Conference led the way with six ranked teams, including No. 14 Alabama, No. 16 Kentucky and No. 18 South Carolina. The Big 12 was next with four teams, all in the top 15.
The Big East had three, followed by the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Pac-12, Mountain West and West Coast conferences with two. The Atlantic 10 joined the AAC with one.