Get your popcorn ready! Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.
Imagine rooting for a college basketball team that reaches seven consecutive Final Fours. This is what the Astros have accomplished MLB-style. Seven consecutive League Division Series won is remarkable and unprecedented. In the LDS era which began in 1995, among the other 29 franchises only the Braves have advanced five years in a row.
So now, behold the biggest Texas teams only sporting event in the history of the Lone Star State as the Astros and Rangers ready to open the American League Championship Series Sunday night at Minute Maid Park.
Well, possibly second biggest depending on personal preference. The only competition to this ALCS is the Rockets-Spurs 1995 NBA Western Conference Final. Like the Astros now, the Rockets were the defending champions. Like the Rangers now, the Spurs had zero titles in their name. The Hakeem Olajuwon vs. David Robinson subplot was spectacular, for Rockets fans anyway, as “The Dream” turned “The Admiral” into “Seaman Dave.” The Rockets ultimately won the back-to back titles the Astros currently pursue.
Maybe in some century to come a Texans-Cowboys Super Bowl becomes number one. Still, unless amazing timing has a Texans-Cowboys Super Bowl played in Houston or Arlington, it'll be an out-of-state event. Texas and Texas A&M playing in a semifinal or championship of the College Football Playoff would be a doozy too. It's been since 1998 that the Longhorns and Aggies played with both even ranked in the top 20. At least next year they end their 12 season stretch of not playing period.
Last time the Astros and Rangers saw each other the Astros administered a three game humiliation by scores of 13-6, 14-1, and 12-3 to finish off a nine wins to four victory in the season series. It put the Astros in control of the AL West, which they then blew, before the Rangers ultimately gave it back on the final day of the regular season. That was then, this is now.
The Rangers' lineup is much stronger than what the Astros faced nearly six weeks ago. Catcher Jonah Heim hadn't re-found his hitting stroke after returning from the injured list, stud rookie third baseman Josh Jung was on the IL, and 21-year-old outfield phenom Evan Carter had yet to make his big league debut. Adolis Garcia getting injured against the Astros facilitated Carter getting called up. As a top to bottom batting order, the Rangers rate a slight edge. It is vastly superior over what the Minnesota Twins had to offer. The Rangers didn't lead the AL in runs scored by fluke. But the Rangers don't have Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez, though Corey Seager was better this season than both of them. And what a couple of weeks of redemption Jose Abreu has had.
The starting pitching slight edge goes to the Astros. After Justin Verlander in game one which Framber Valdez and which Cristian Javier show for the Astros? Valdez has been shaky while Javier has been resurgent. Jose Urquidy has been sensational in his last two starts. Life takes funny turns. Urquidy doesn't make the first of those starts and maybe not either of them if not for a health scare for J.P. France's wife. Happily, things are fine for the Frances. They sure are for the Astros.
Jordan Montgomery and an again healthy and sharp Nathan Eovaldi are a strong Rangers one-two. At three-four, Dane Dunning is ok but vulnerable, Andrew Heaney even more vulnerable. If Max Scherzer and/or Jon Gray return from injury (as seems probable) and can offer even a few good innings, that would be a big boost for the challengers. If both are healthy, expect Rangers' manager Bruce Bochy to tag-team two starters in games three and four.
The huge advantage in this matchup is in the bullpen and it favors the Astros. If picking sides in a bullpen draft, Ryan Pressly, Bryan Abreu, and Hector Neris all go before the first Ranger would be taken (closer Jose LeClerc). Aroldis Chapman is mostly a wild mess these days. No way Jose Altuve gets a shot at another pennant-winning homer off of him. As he did with the Astros, Will Smith has faded toward irrelevance. If Rangers' starters don't average at least six innings pitched in the series, it's probably going well for the champs.
Both teams are solid defensively. One checkmark the Astros get on D is at shortstop. Jeremy Peña has been stellar in recent weeks, with scintillating plays in Seattle and Minnesota. Corey Seager isn't a butcher at short by any stretch, but can be spotty.
The Astros are not quite 60/40 favorites to make it three straight AL pennants. No team has reached back-to-back-to-back World Series since the Yankees went to four in a row 1998-2001.
If there really were Baseball Gods, I would ask them to have Astros-Rangers go seven compelling games. This is tremendous.
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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up at 4PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets such as:
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.