THE PALLILOG

Here’s how the tea leaves continue to favor the fortunes of the Houston Astros

Alex Bregman is on a tear. Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

I’m pretty sure that the late Tom Petty was not a Yankees fan, but one of his best songs sure capsulizes the Bronx Bummers these days. I don’t mean “Runnin’ Down A Dream.” Over their last 43 games the Yankees are 17-26. That is “Free Fallin’.” Probably breaks your heart. Over the same time span the Astros have gone 30-16. Their recent hiccup going 7-9 over 16 games was a by comparison trivial slice of schedule. Parlay Astros’ excellence with Yankees’ ineptitude over the last six weeks and there’s been a whopping 11 and a half game swing in the standings. The Astros enter the weekend three and a half games ahead of the Yanks for the top seed in the American League playoffs. The script could re-flip but I doubt it. The Astros have the much easier schedule from here on in, and the clearly better pitching. So, while the Astros’ offense could get shut down and bounced from the playoffs in the Division Series, they are the definite favorites now to win a fourth AL pennant in six years.

The NL looks legit

The National League has three tremendous teams. The Dodgers are obviously the best in baseball at this point. Over their last 43 games the Dodgers are 35-8. Thirty-five and eight! They have multiple superstars and unsurpassed depth. The Mets are outstanding. If Jacob DeGrom’s pitching arm holds up with Max Scherzer’s there is no more preferable starting pitching tandem in the game. Then there are the reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves, who are merely 50-20 over their last 70 games.

This weekend the Astros are in Atlanta for the first time since the World Series last fall. It’s a three game series that while not at all likely, could certainly be a precursor to another Fall Classic matchup. The last time we had a World Series rematch was the only instance of it occurring in the expansion era (1962 forward). In 1977 and 1978 the Yankees and Dodgers both won their leagues back-to-back, in both years the Yankees won the Series in six. It was in six games that the Braves dispatched the Astros. The biggest storyline of the series was the Astros’ offense getting snuffed in four of the six games. Twice the Astros mustered just two runs, twice they were shutout. Now Astro reliever Will Smith finished them off with a scoreless ninth inning in all four Braves wins. The 2021 Astros’ lineup was better than this season’s edition so the biggest concern about the 2022 Astros is clear as they roll toward their sixth consecutive postseason is. The Astros’ offense is capable but sketchy. They come off a four game series against the White Sox that illustrates the point. Thursday’s 21 run onslaught was fun, but came after a meager output of eight runs total over the first three games of the series.

Is Breggy back?

While Yordan Alvarez has slumped the last three weeks (last 18 games batting .206 with one homer, OPS lower than Mauricio Dubon and Martin Maldonado season marks), Alex Bregman has gone baseball ballistic. His two doubles two homers for six RBI day in Chicago Thursday has Bregman’s batting average over his last 51 games at .319 with extra base hits galore (18 doubles and 11 homers). Call him a Boy of Summer. Bregman simply wasn’t a very good player through spring. He went to bed June 20 with an OPS of .710. Since the calendar clicked to summer, .994.

Even if grading on a curve given he faced the anemic A’s, Lance McCullers was outstanding in his first start of the season. Start two comes against the vastly better Braves’ lineup Friday night. While it won’t make or break McCullers’s case for a spot in the Astros’ postseason starting rotation, it will be a much more interesting barometer. Saturday the Astros go with their third-best starter this season in Cristian Javier, Sunday it’s number four man Jose Urquidy. Luis Garcia was given an avalanche of run support against the White Sox Thursday but still didn’t last beyond the fifth inning. Garcia is looking increasingly likely to be left off the Division Series roster. It’s not that Garcia is lousy, but over the last two months he's been more lousy than good. Garcia's earned run average of 4.92 over his last dozen starts doesn’t cut it.

Food for thought

Last year the Braves were under .500 in early August before going on to win it all. This year they left a losing record in the rearview mirror for good June 4. They closed May at 23-27 before ripping off MLB’s longest winning streak this season at 14 in a row (equaled by the Mariners). That reminds me of one of my all-time favorite baseball factoids. 14 straight wins is just one beyond the halfway mark to the MLB record. The 1916 New York Giants reeled off an incredible 26 straight wins. That same season the Giants had a separate 17 game winning streak. So in two stretches covering more than 25 percent of their schedule the Giants went 43-0. The 1916 Giants finished fourth in the National League. In their games apart from the 43-0 combined streaks, they went 43-66.

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It more of the same from the Houston Texans. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

Sunday afternoon provided a high-res snapshot of the state of Houston sports. The Astros, already assured of the best record in the American League, played a game they didn’t need to win. The Astros won, ho-hum, their 104th win of the season.

Meanwhile, eight miles away, the Texans, mired in last place with fan support dwindling, played a game they really needed to win. The Texans lost 34-24 to the Los Angeles Chargers in front of (giggle) 69,071 fans at NRG Stadium. The Texans really ought to stop saying the stands are packed. Every time a team punts, and cameras follow the ball skyward, there are thousands of empty seats on display. I know the NFL methodology for determining attendance, (total tickets sold, no-shows don’t count) but it just looks silly when the Texans announce 69,000 fans.

The Texans came close as usual before sputtering to another defeat. The Texans now stand at 0-3-1, the only winless team in the NFL. It’s the second time in three years they’ve started a season without a victory after four games. It’s telling to note that not one of the Texans opponents has a winning record for 2022.

In other words, the Texans have played four games they shoulda/coulda won. Shouda against the Colts, Broncos and Bears, and coulda against the Chargers.

Should/coulda four wins. Instead, none.

That’s the Texans. They’re in every game but can’t close the deal. Yeah, yeah, on Monday we hear, “the Texans are playing hard for coach Lovie Smith” and “they’re competitive” and “they’re a young team.” These are NFL equivalents of a participation trophy.

Sunday’s loss to the Chargers at NRG Stadium was straight out of the Texans playbook. Fall behind, make it interesting, lose. The Texans stuck to their script, timid play calling, momentum-crushing penalties (nine for 67 yards), self-inflicted drops, lackluster quarterbacking and Rex Burkhead on the field for crunch time. After one play where a Texan player was called for holding, the announcer said, “and he did a poor job of holding.”

Statuesque quarterback David Mills keeps saying “we’re in a good spot” and “we’re improving.” Statuesque as in he doesn’t move – or barely moves to avoid sacks. Sunday saw his first touchdown pass to a wide receiver. He’s now thrown four interceptions in the past two games. Let’s go to the tote board: 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 4 fumbles, 11 sacks, qbr rating 28.5 – good for 28th in the league.

A bright spot, sort of. This was the first week the Texans didn’t cover the spread. They’re now 1-2-1 against Vegas oddsmakers, meaning you’ve won money if you took the Texans all four weeks. They head to Jacksonville next as early 6.5-point underdogs.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s brilliant quarterback Bryce Young, who will be available for the Texans when they draft first in 2023 (as Paul Heyman says, that’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler), suffered a shoulder injury last Saturday. The Texans need to take out a Lloyds of London insurance policy on Young.

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