TURN BACK THE CLOCK

How a door could be open for a controversial return of Astros staff member

James Click and Dusty Baker aren't under contract next season. Could Jeff Luhnow return? Composite photo by Jack Brame.

The Houston Astros have seemed to be in a wait and see approach since the organization fired manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow in 2020 for the sign stealing scandal. The Astros hired Dusty Baker and James Click to replace both individuals.

Baker was given a one-year deal that had an option, which the Astros exercised to keep him in 2021. Houston then gave Baker a one-year extension for 2022. Click originally signed with the Astros under a multi-year deal, but now his contract is nearing its end and Houston will wait until after the 2022 season to make any decisions. Now the question arises, who is more likely to be back for Houston in 2023?

Under the leadership of both, Houston has continued to see the success it experienced under the old regime. While 2020 saw the Astros finish with a subpar 29-31 regular season record, the team made it to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Houston followed it up in 2021 by getting to the World Series, the third time in five years, and 2022 sees the team sitting atop the AL with the best record by a decent margin with less than a month left in the regular season. The Astros are once again expected to make a deep postseason run.

Despite the success, however, fans and the Astros organization alike have never seemed to be sold on Baker. The short-term commitments to the skipper are the biggest signs that point in that direction.

From Click’s perspective, Houston gave a stronger vote of confidence in him from the start. Under Click, the Astros have seen franchise players in George Springer in 2021 and Carlos Correa in 2022 leave, but the team’s success hasn’t skipped a beat.

Click has also negotiated the extensions of Yordan Alvarez, Lance McCullers Jr., and brought back Justin Verlander. Most recently, he also made trade deadline deals that brought Trey Mancini, Christian Vázquez and left-handed pitcher Will Smith to bolster the team’s roster for the postseason run. Additionally, Houston has seen younger players rise like Framber Valdez, Jeremy Peña and now potentially Hunter Brown.

Ultimately, the market and postseason success will decide what direction owner Jim Crane goes in with Houston in the offseason. From a general manager’s perspective, the Astros could always bring back Luhnow, who oversaw the team from its rock bottom years of 100+ losses to the 2017 World Series Championship.

While the MLB world will certainly explode if the Astros brought back the old architect, eventually, the backlash would fade. There is certainly a precedent for it. Manager A.J. Hinch is back in the majors, now overseeing the Detroit Tigers, and the Boston Red Sox kept it straightforward, bringing back manger Alex Cora after only one year out of the league.

Is bringing Luhnow back realistic? Probably not for various reasons. The primary reason being that in a world where only one of either Baker or Click can return to the Astros, it would have to be Click because of how he has kept the roster deep and made acquisitions to keep the team in position to compete for championships.

Baker, while he has overseen two deep playoff runs, seems like he is one bad series away from giving the organization a reason to move in a different direction.

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Cougars win in OT. Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images.

The only cheers Houston guard L.J. Cryer heard in his return to Baylor came when he missed a 3-pointer on the first shot of the game for the second-ranked Cougars.

Cryer, who as a freshman three years ago was part of Baylor’s only national championship, made six free throws in overtime and finished with 15 points as No. 2 and Big 12-leading Houston beat the 11th-ranked Bears 82-76 on Saturday after blowing a 16-point halftime lead.

“I was expecting the boos and stuff like that, like not welcoming,” said Cryer, who had no turnovers while playing nearly 43 minutes.

“Really proud of L.J.,” Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said. “L.J. was in a tough environment today. ... He showed his maturity because he just played solid.”

The Cougars (24-3, 11-3 Big 12) never trailed in regulation and appeared to win the game on a long 3-pointer by Jamal Shead at the buzzer. But replay showed the ball was still in his hands when the clock ran out.

All six of Cryer’s free throws came in overtime, the first two with 3:06 left to put the Cougars back ahead to stay after falling behind for the first time. After playing 70 games the past three seasons for Baylor before transferring to Houston, he got booed loudly every time he touched the ball early.

Emanuel Sharp had 18 points to lead the Cougars. J’Wan Roberts had 17 points and eight rebounds, while Shead had 12 points and 10 assists.

“Everybody contributed to this win, we’re all responsible for this win,” Shead said. “This was a really good team win.”

Ja’Kobe Walter scored a game-high 23 points for Baylor (19-8, 8-6), and RayJ Dennis had 21. Jalen Bridges had 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Jayden Nunn scored 11 points.

The Bears didn’t tie the game for the first time until Yves Missi, their 7-foot freshman, made a layup while being fouled with 4.4 seconds left in regulation to make it 69-all. Roberts rebounded Missi’s missed free throw, and Shead was just a tick late in ending the game without overtime.

Baylor opened the second half with a 12-0 run while Houston missed its first eight shots. Bridges scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half, including nine in a row for the Bears in the final 5 1/2 minutes of regulation.

The Cougars led 41-25 at halftime after scoring 13 points off 11 Baylor turnovers. They made 10 of 11 shots in one stretch, which Roberts started by assisting on consecutive baskets before ending it with a jumper that made it 27-10.

“We just felt like they brought it to us in the first half. They’re easily the most physical team that we’ve played so far and I feel like we were a little bit taken back,” Bridges said. “And we just came out in the second half trying to punch them back.”

MISSING GUARDS

Bears sophomore guard Langston Love, their sixth player averaging double-figure scoring going into Saturday, was out of the fourth time in five games because of a leg injury. He played 15 minutes at BYU on Tuesday. ... Sampson revealed after the game that Cougars junior guard Ramon Walker, who got hurt in practice this week, will miss the rest of the season because of a torn meniscus.

BIG PICTURE

It was their first meeting as Big 12 foes, and first since the Final Four three years ago when Baylor beat Houston in a semifinal game on way to winning its first national championship.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Some consider Houston the best team in the country, even though reigning national champion UConn is No. 1. The Cougars won both games this week against top-11 teams, also beating sixth-ranked Iowa State. Baylor is certain to drop several spots, even though its consecutive losses are to Top 25 teams.

UP NEXT

Houston is home Tuesday night against Cincinnati.

Baylor plays Monday night at TCU, which won 105-102 in triple overtime on Jan. 27 to become the first and only other opposing team to win at Foster Pavilion.

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