WHAT'S NEXT?

Astros bitten by the dog days, now being dealt a lucky hand

Next year's schedule will look completely different. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Lately the Astros have been putting the dog in the dog days of summer, blowing games they should have won, resting players in bunches, some missing time with unlucky injuries, others whiffing on pitches three feet off the plate (we’re looking at you, Jeremy Pena), and Dusty Baker filling out lineup cards by throwing darts at a wall.

Not to worry. The Astros are comfortably in first place, they have the best record in the American League, they’re leading their division by 11-1/2 and, most important, they’re not the Yankees. Feeling sorry for the Yankees who are sinking fast in the east? Nope.

While the Astros are playing lackluster ball heading into September, here comes Mr. Schedule Maker to save the day – and the season.

The Astros have 39 games left this season. That’s 13 series. They will play only one team that, if the season ended today, would be in MLB’s expanded playoffs.

There’s nothing wrong with the Astros that a schedule loaded with the Twins, Orioles, Rangers, Angels, Tigers, Diamondbacks and Phillies won’t cure. The only Astros opponent currently in the playoff picture is Tampa Bay. If the Astros can stay even half awake, they will waltz into the post-season with a first-round bye.

When the season ends, the Astros will have played the Rangers, Angels, Mariners, and A’s 19 games each. That’s 76 games, practically half the season, against divisional, well, we can’t really call them rivals. The Astros own the American League West.

The A’s have the worst record in the American League. Both the Angels and Rangers fired their managers during the season. The Mariners hold the distinction of being the team in America’s four major sports with the longest playoff drought. The last time the Mariners sniffed the post-season was 2021.

It’s a suck division, all right. What are the Astros even doing there? The Astros don’t have a despised nemesis in the AL West. Nobody gives a hoot about the Silver Boot non-rivalry with the Texas Rangers.

The Astros real arch enemy is the Yankees. Yankees fans despise the Astros. Astros fans relish victories over the New Yorkers, especially in the post-season.

If divisional play is supposed to create natural geographic rivalries, it’s not even close. Houston is closer to New York (1,628 miles) than to Oakland (1,914 miles) or Seattle (2,335 miles).

The Astros are eighth in MLB attendance this year, averaging 33,351 fans per game. The Dodgers are first, averaging 48,145. The Yankees are averaging 39,495. The Dodgers get to host the star-studded but troubled Padres and longtime foe Giants. The Yankees welcome the Rays, Blue Jays, Orioles (all with winning records) and their bitter enemy Red Sox.

Imagine the sold-out crowds at Minute Maid Park if the Dodgers or Yankees were in town on a consistent basis. And the Astros weren’t burdened with the Mariners, A’s, Angels and Rangers over and over.

Fortunately, Mr. Schedule Maker is reducing the number of games that teams play divisional opponents next year. The Astros will play AL West teams only 14 times, which will free up at least one series against every other MLB team.

So the Astros get to play the Dodgers and Yankees and Braves and Mets and Rays and Cardinals and Cubs every year from now on. And not so many against the distant A’s and Mariners. It’s about time … and geography.

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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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