THE PALLILOG

Here's a realistic path for Houston Astros to snatch No. 1 seed from Yankees

All systems go for the Astros!Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

10 days ago I noted that the Astros had finished an amazingly lengthy schedule stretch that would have needed to harden up to become powderpuff soft.
I Tweeted this:

Well, seven wins against just two losses later, whip up is what they did. Sweeping four games from the Mets in which the Mets never led at any point? Not exactly payback for older Astros' fans who remember 1986, but sweet nevertheless. Taking three of five from the Yankees in all compelling games looked like a fabulous precursor to a highly possible third Astros-Yankees American League Championship Series matchup in six years.

Despite their present 48-27 mark the Astros are still seven games behind the Yankees and their crazy 56-21 ledger. The Yanks are absolutely catchable though. Not because the Astros are the flat out better team, nothing indicates that. It's the schedule. There are four losing teams behind the Astros in the AL West. Behind the Yankees in the AL East, three winning teams (Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays). Even the woebegone for years Orioles are much improved, with the best last place record in Major League Baseball (as a reference point, the Orioles' record is 10 games better than AL West laughingstock Oakland). Over the coming dog days of summer the Yanks have the substantially higher intradivisional hurdles. The plot reeeeally thickens if the Astros sweep the doubleheader with the Yankees at Minute Maid Park slotted July 21 right out of the All-Star break. That's it for regular season matchups between them.

The Astros enter the weekend exactly as far ahead (seven games) of the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins as they are behind the Yanks. That's a very strong position for the Astros to secure a bye past the best-of-three Wild Card Series. Remember, with the newly expanded postseason format byes go to the top two division winners in each league.

Now for the Astros it's back to a marshmallow opponents parade. They have 16 games remaining before the All-Star break, all vs. losers: six with the Angels, six with the A's, four with the Royals. Let's reasonably posit that the Astros successfully take out the trash more regularly than they did in the 34 game stretch. 12-4 is certainly plausible. That would get the Astros to 60 wins at the break with a record of 60-31, which would be on pace for a season total of 106.8 wins. Let's round up. 107 wins is the franchise record they set in 2019.

This team is outstanding, but still can use an offensive upgrade. The lineup just had its best month of the season but that didn't take a whole lot. Alex Bregman has finally perked up some. Yuli Gurriel, not so much. Martin Maldonado, pretty much unperkable. Heed this James Click: more potent lineups than the 2022 Astros came up short in the World Series in both 2019 and 2021.

Barring a huge second half of the season, Gurriel should not be in the Astros' 2023 plans. I'd say the same for Maldonado but he is on course to have a five million dollar option next year become guaranteed. He's played in 54 games this season, the option vests at 90. Ideally he's a backup. At the risk of some charging heresy, Maldonado's defensive imperativity (is that a word?) is overblown. Pitch-framing metrics do not rate him highly. He does not eliminate opposition running games. One, very few teams run much at all. Two, Maldonado has thrown out 26 percent of would be basestealers this season. Jason Castro has thrown out 25 percent. The big one last. With Maldonado behind the plate this season, Astros' pitchers' earned run average is 3.23. With Castro, 2.37. Would that hold up for Castro if he was the primary catcher? No chance. But sample size issues accepted, that Maldonado's defensive savant-ness renders his offensive ineptitude inconsequential? Nah. Certainly not in a lineup not up to recent past Astro teams.

Two weeks ago, this column covered Yordan Alvarez's chance at the greatest individual offensive month in Astros' history. Yordan's June ended with his scary collision with Jeremy Peña that knocked both out of Wednesday's matinée at the Mets and kept both out of Thursday's win over the Yankees. That was a harrowing smash as opposed to the delightful smashes that Alvarez busted out all over June. He finished batting .418 with an OPS of 1.346. Real and spectacular, but not quite ultimately as awesome as Jeff Bagwell's June or July 1994, or Richard Hidalgo's closing month of the 2000 season.

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Texans training camp observations from 8/10. Still footage by Cody Stoots.

The Houston Texans inched closer to their preseason debut. Here are 11 observations from a hotly contested practice.

1. Derek Stingley did it again. The rookie continues to get more and more work. It had been rare to see Stingley win a big rep against Brandin Cooks, but that changed Wednesday. Cooks planted and turned for a comeback route as Davis Mills was letting the ball go. Stingley planted himself, and I didn’t think he would make it to the ball. Well, not only did he make it, but he also had an interception bounce off his hands. The defense had a little buzz to it after the play from the rookie. It was an example of the eye-popping potential and continued growth for Stingley.

2. A few plays later, Stingley showed his agility and closing speed on a play where he ended up defending Nico Collins. It was a different task for Stingley, but he recognized where the ball was headed and went to close on Collins. Collins dropped the pass, but even had he caught it, Stingley was there to keep it a short gain.

3. Jalen Pitre was named a starter on the team’s unofficial initial depth chart. He’s earned it. Pitre flashes constantly and some of the early hiccups from camp are no longer present. Pitre skied over Brandin Cooks, didn’t interfere, and knocked a ball away. He’s going to be a must-watch in the preseason games.

4. Dameon Pierce has a nice burst and he’s stocky, but on Wednesday I saw some patience and vision from him. The rookie running back darted through a slow-developing hole for a big gain. Pierce catches the ball a fair amount as well, despite the fact his college games didn’t feature that a ton when you watched him play at Florida.

5. I was concerned about Dameon Pierce’s pass blocking, and I still want to see what it looks like at full speed. Wednesday showed he has a decent idea of what to accomplish. Pierce chipped a rusher that was about to beat the offensive tackle, allowing Davis Mills to complete a huge play to Brandin Cooks.

6. Davis Mills and Brandin Cooks finally hooked up on a long pass and made it look easy. It was in stride, on target, and went for a gain of over 30 yards. Mills had to step up a little to make the throw. It was a tight pocket, and he dropped it right into the bread basket of Cooks. It elicited the biggest cheer of the day from the fans in attendance.

7. Towards the end of practice, it was Davis Mills and Brandin Cooks again. The situational football was in full effect as the offense was drilling a 4th and 10 from the 20-yard-line setup. Mills had to buy a little time, and the offensive line held up well, but he saw Cooks coming open and fired to the back corner of the end zone. Two feet for Brandin Cooks and a touchdown. The defense was exasperated. They’d done almost all they could to contain Cooks.

8. It wasn’t the best day overall from the offense. In part, the defense had some nice plays. There was a little sloppiness from the offense overall. Some were almost connections. I will say though, that one bad play doesn’t feel like it dooms the offense anymore. There is hope if there is ever a negative play or an incomplete pass. It didn’t feel that way last season.

9. Maliek Collins might be a problem this year. For opposing teams, I mean, not the Texans. Collins had a couple of bad penalties last year and came up close on a few plays. He again had a nice play that would have resulted in a sack. It’s fun to see his potential show in camp, I am excited to see him and All-Pro guard, Quenton Nelson, in week one of the season.

10. Kevin Pierre-Lewis is healthy and ready to contribute. He was step for step on a Brandin Cooks wheel route that ended up being an incomplete pass. With some injuries in the linebacker group, the veteran has a chance to start or at least play a lot.

11. The preseason game is on Saturday against the Saints. Here are four players on offense and four players on defense I will be watching very closely. On offense guard Max Scharping, running back Dameon Pierce, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, and wide receiver Chad Beebe is who I will be looking for the most. On defense edge rusher Rasheem Green, defensive tackle Kurt Hinish, linebacker Neville Hewitt, and any rookie who plays.

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