Burning questions Houston Astros must answer as they approach home stretch

Do the Astros have a clear-cut ace? Composite Getty Image.

You’re Astros manager Dusty Baker. It’s the last day of the 2023 baseball season and the Astros and Rangers are tied with identical 94-68 records. It’s a must-win game with the American League West title and a coveted bye in the first round of the post-season possibly at stake.

You’ve played it smart down the stretch anticipating this. All of your starters are rested and ready to take the mound.

Who are you giving the ball to?

Justin Verlander? He’s the highest paid player in baseball history, a sure Hall of Famer, the defending American League Cy Young Award winner. But he hasn’t exactly dominated since returning to the Astros and he got rocked for nine hits, two walks and five runs (four earned) over five innings in his last start.

Framber Valdez? Take away his recent no-hitter, Valdez has not been a shutdown ace in months. Since late June, his average start has gone six innings, giving up seven hits and 4.5 runs.

Cristian Javier has made it to the sixth inning only once in his last nine starts. He began the season at 7-1. Two months and 11 starts (nine no-decisions) later, he’s at 8-2. There’s talk of him going to the bullpen for the post-season.

Hunter Brown has been up and down and Jose Urquidy is coming off injury. You want to go to war in a one-game shootout with either of them?

The true ace of the 2023 Astros is rookie J.P. France who has saved this season with a hard-nosed, reliable 9-3 mark and 2.74 earned run average. Be honest, had you even heard of Jonathan Patrick France before the season started? He didn’t make his MLB debut until May 6. He’s started 16 games, won nine of them. The Astros have won all eight of his most recent starts. Looks like Clark Kent, pitches like Superman.

J.P. France is a selfie of how the entire Astros season has unfolded - unlike anything fans have seen in recent years. Used to be, you’d turn on the Astros game in the third or fourth inning (we arrive late for TV, too) and the Astros would be up 3-1 with Verlander and Valdez dealing in dominant form. This year, the score could be Astros up, Astros down, and the team is scrapping to the end. No lead is safe, no deficit fatal.

It seemed all was smooth sailing in recent years past, with Baker making all the right moves and fans appreciating their crusty, lovable, toothpick-gnawing skipper. This year, fans are pulling out their hair.

Why is Martin Maldonado batting in the eighth inning with runners on base? How much more of Jose Abreu can we take at first base? Why is Grae Kessinger in the lineup? Why is Yordan Alvarez, one of baseball’s mightiest sluggers, batting fifth? When, if ever, is Michael Brantley coming back? Now pitching for the Houston Astros, Phil Maton, oh no!

The Astros seem to be on a frustrating treadmill, and like the real treadmill you use to hang clothes at home, they appear to be going nowhere. The Astros keep winning series but can’t gain ground on the division-leading Texas Rangers. Wile E. Coyote has more success catching the Roadrunner. It’s like that Rodney Dangerfield joke. As a teenager, he borrowed $500 from a lone shark, paid him $25 a week for 30 years and still owed him $1,000.

That’s the weirdest thing of all in 2023 - the Astros are looking up at the Rangers in the standings. That’s not supposed to happen.

Still … the Astros are 70-52, 18 games over .500, and winners of eight of their last 11 games. Unless the roof falls in, they’re all but guaranteed of making the post-season. For all of this summer of discontent, there are 30 teams in baseball and only five of them have a better won-loss record than the Astros. TV ratings are up on AT&T SportsNet. Minute Maid Park is packed, averaging nearly 38,000 fans each night. That’s more than 5,000 up per game from last year when, if memory serves, they won the whole shebang.

Huge hot-ticket series against the surging Seattle Mariners, always popular Boston Red Sox, those dreaded Yankees and surprising Orioles remain on the home schedule.

Oh, there’s a little three-game set against the Rangers coming up in Arlington in early September. Astros fans might want to start planning the roadie.

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The Texans host the Steelers at NRG this Sunday. Composite Getty Image.

What: Texans vs. Steelers

When: 10/1 12pm CST kickoff

Where: Houston, TX NRG Stadium

TV/Radio: KHOU-TV, KILT-Radio

Betting Lines: Steelers -2.5 (-120), O/U 42 (-110) *As of this writing

The Watt Brother Bowl takes place on Sunday. I'm calling it that because the Texans are honoring their all-time great J.J. while they're playing his younger brother and current hell raising edge rusher for the Steelers T.J. The Steelers have won four of the last five matchups vs. the Texans by an average score of 28-17. The biggest difference is that the Steelers have a second year starter at quarterback in Kenny Pickett, and the Texans have a rookie in C.J. Stroud. When you look at the two quarterbacks, both organizations have full faith in each guy. Both teams have tried to build a defense to help their young signal callers. Both are still trying to surround their franchise guys with weapons.

When the Steelers have the ball: Here's a game where Will Anderson Jr can make headway as a proven EDGE. Stacking consistent performances together and helping your team win games by making winning plays. It helps that Pickett has tiny hands. This was a knock on him during draft season last year. Hand size for a quarterback impacts grip. That can not only impact accuracy, but it could make it easier to strip the ball from him.

While he doesn't have the weapons to torch this defense, Pickett does hand the ball off to Najee Harris who's more than capable. Averaging only 67 yards rushing as a team can't be taken lightly. Denzel Perryman is expected to miss the game Sunday, so hopefully that won't help jumpstart the Steelers' run game. The Texans defense will have to key in on the run, given that they average giving up 117 a game on the ground. Those aforementioned weapons may not be scary, but the injuries to the defensive backs has hurt. Tavierre Thomas is expected to miss the game recovering from hand surgery. Jimmie Ward coming back last week showed what happens when they have a top safety back there, especially when the pass rush is turning up. Hopefully, the Texans can capitalize again this week, with safety Jalen Pitre expected to return to action.

When the Texans have the ball: Good luck stopping Tank Dell and Stroud! These guys have already established themselves as a formidable duo three games into their careers. A great way to get that connection going is to pound the rock. The Steelers are giving up over 150 yards on the ground per game so far this season. That's also a good way to keep T.J. at bay while J.J. watches. With Laremy Tunsil and Josh Jones both expected to miss the game, here are the offensive line starters: Austin Deculus, Kendrick Green, Jarrett Patterson, Shaq Mason, and George Fant.

Making the younger Watt brother slow down a bit instead of going balls to the wall after Stroud because a run could be coming will help the pass game tremendously. Stroud will have to continue to make quick decisions, but even quicker this game. I wouldn't be surprised to see his first pick of his career here, given the pressure he's most likely to be under. Especially when your offensive line starters were mostly all backups to begin this season.

Outcome: I failed to place a money line bet on the Texans last week because the game started and the live bet wasn't as profitable. I wanted to take a chance on them given their recent record against the Jags. Looking at their last five vs. the Steelers, one would say why make that bet this week? It's because I believe in Stroud more than I believe in Pickett. While T.J. Watt is a different kind of monster, Will Anderson Jr is on his way to becoming something special. Texans win/cover, and hit the over, but barely: Texans 24, Steelers 20.

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