Houston winning the arms race this year

Twirled Series: Astros' pitching continues to show why Houston is the best team of 2022

The Astros will look to Framber Valdez to pitch Game 6 of the World Series. Composite image by Jack Brame.

They may not have finished the regular season with the best overall record in all of MLB, and they may not play in one of the toughest divisions in the league. Yet, the 2022 Houston Astros showed plenty of signs this season that their pitching staff was operating at an elite level, and paired with a more-than-adequate offense, they were the best team in baseball all along.

Pitching their way back into the series

The World Series isn't over yet by any means, with the Astros needing to get the final win in Game 6 or a possible Game 7 to finish things off, but the performance their arms put on in games 4 and 5 has to instill a sense of destiny about what's to come. Let's go back to Game 3, where, due to tipping or not, the Phillies offense completely dismantled Lance McCullers Jr. on their way to handing Houston a disheartening 7-0 loss.

That gave Philadelphia a 2-1 series lead after the first of three games at Citizens Bank Park and left Houston searching for a significant flip of momentum and quick. Boy, they got it, with Cristian Javier righting the ship with his spectacular start, going six hitless innings followed by a non-surprising quality night from the bullpen to finish the combined no-hitter.

That tied the series, setting up a big moment for Justin Verlander. After his Game 1 implosion continued his World Series woes, the presumptive Cy Young award winner must've felt some pressure heading into Game 5, knowing that another disappointing start may cost his team the series. Instead, he finally gets his first win in the Fall Classic, making it through five innings while allowing just one run before his bullpen would finish things off for him. Speaking of the bullpen...

Pressly for WS MVP?

Let's talk about Ryan Pressly and his ascension with the Astros. He joined the team via trade in 2018, coming in as a middle-innings reliever. In 2020, then-closer Roberto Osuna suffered an injury, and Houston decided to move Pressly to the closer role. That change has paid massive dividends for the team, and there's been no better display of it than Pressly's performance in this World Series so far.

In Game 1, he enters in a 5-5 tie in the top of the ninth and sits down the nine, one, and two hitters of the Phillies to give Houston a chance at a walk-off, though they would go on to lose in extras. In Game 2, he allows the only hit he's given up to the Phillies, which would score after an error but still held on to finish off the victory that tied the series 1-1.

After not appearing in the lopsided Game 3 loss, he enters in the ninth of Game 4, which despite being a 5-0 game, still had a high level of stress with a combined no-hitter on his shoulders, which he would get across the finish line. Then, the night after finishing that no-no, he has the most impressive outing so far.

In the midst of one of the most stressful games of the year for Houston, their bullpen allows a rare run in the bottom of the eighth, making it a 3-2 game and giving the Phillies a chance to put together a series-defining rally if they could take the lead and go up 3-2 in the series. Dusty Baker opts to trust his closer, bringing in Pressly with runners on first and third with one out in a one-run game, asking him to escape the jam and get a five-out save.

The first batter he faces, Pressly does precisely what he needs to do, getting a three-pitch strikeout to allow any out to end the inning, which he would get against the dangerous Kyle Schwarber to send the game to the ninth with the Astros still in front. Then he's faced with the heart of Philadelphia's order in the bottom of the ninth, with Houston still owning a one-run lead. Strikeout, fly out with a fantastic Chas McCormick assist, a hit batter, then a groundout to win the game.

There will be more offense to consider for Jeremy Peña, Alex Bregman, and others that are also firmly in the discussion should the Astros win the series. Still, with how Pressly's going, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Houston's closer takes home the World Series MVP trophy.

Run the playbook one more time

Before the trophies start getting handed out, Houston needs to check off that final box, which is getting one more win. Their recipe for success continues to be having one of their elite starters get as far into the game and with as minor damage as possible, then trusting their bullpen arms to navigate the rest of the way.

With the uncertainty of a Game 7, the Astros need that playbook to work in Game 6, where they'll have their "other ace," Framber Valdez, on the mound looking to replicate the success he had in Game 2, where he went six and one-thirds innings while allowing just one run. After the day off to rest the bullpen, if he can get into the middle innings with a close game, Dusty Baker will be able to piece together the rest with his cast of near-untouchable arms, and Houston will be champions once more.

Bench Framber

Astros Framber Valdez, Justin VerlanderBench FramberComposite image by Brandon Strange

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Watt shocked fans with a surprise Twitter announcement. Composite image by Jack Brame.

We're not sure when Houston will erect its own Mt. Rushmore for sports legends, but we're quite certain that J.J. Watt, who announced his retirement on Tuesday, December 27, and his chiseled countenance will one day jut from the rocky sculpture.

A no-brainer for the NFL Hall of Fame and arguably the greatest player to ever don a Houston Texans uniform (the other being the quiet great Andre Johnson), Watt broke the news on social media, where he posted heartwarming photos of he, wife Kealia, son Koa, and his family.

He stunned the football world — and fans — with this simple message and those family photos taken after his current team the Arizona Cardinals lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:

Koa’s first ever NFL game. My last ever NFL home game. My heart is filled with nothing but love and gratitude. It’s been an absolute honor and a pleasure.

For many in Houston, it's still a bit surreal to see Justin James Watt — the NFL superstar drafted in the first round in 2011 by the Texans — in Arizona. (A pick that put this publication on the national map for all the wrong reasons with an embarrassing hot take).

After an understandable but still bittersweet release in February 2021, Watt made headlines by signing with the Cardinals, a move many applauded, given the Texans' downward trajectory.

Renowned for his relentless motor, Navy SEAL-type work ethic, team-first approach, and straight-up bulldozing and game wrecking, Watt quickly became a one-man nightmare for opposing coaches and players. Even Hollywood jumped on the WattWagon, with Arnold Schwarzenegger calling Watt a future action star and offering some motivation after a big playoff loss.

His Pick 6 play during the Texans' first-ever playoff game, where he batted down a pass from Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and rumbled in for a touchdown, not only served as a terrifying calling card for the rookie, but would later inspire one his many nicknames: "J.J. Swat."

He would soon become one of only three players in NFL history to win at least three AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Awards, in 2012, 2014, and 2015. In 2014, he made such a splash that he came in second overall for NFL MVP, a rare feat for even the best defensive players.

His stats are nothing short of Hall of Fame-ready. He leads the NFL in tackles for loss (172), quarterback hits (281), multi-sack games (26) and sack yards (713.5), while ranking second in sacks (101.0). In 2020, Watt, who led the NFL in sacks twice (2012 and 2015), became the fourth-fastest player in NFL history to total 100.0 sacks, doing so in just his 120th career game, per team stats.

As the NFL Network notes, Watt will retire as only of three players in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year three times. Add to that his five first-team All-Pro honors, five Pro Bowl trips, and his status as a two-time NFL sack leader (his 74.5 sacks over that span of time are the second-most since 1982.)

But for all his numbers, perhaps the most significant for No. 99 is $41.6 million: the amount he raised in 2017 for Hurricane Harvey relief — the largest crowd-sourced fundraiser in history. What started as a simple ask for help after the storm became a runaway, feel-good charitable moment across the country — a testament to Watt's superstar power and his ability to influence the public and raise awareness.

One part single-man football army, one part Captain America, Watt evolved into the epitome of the athlete doing it right — on the field and off (even his "Dream Big. Work Hard." Twitter bio is a simple lesson for young athletes everywhere), deftly navigating the intersection of sports and pop culture. Flashing his boyish grin and monstrous biceps, he was a natural fixture on local and national TV commercials, and a viral sensation with ominous warnings to opponents, like this scary "ya mess with me..." declaration in 2014.

Not since Earl Campbell has Houston seen an NFL player put his team and city on his broad shoulders. At six-foot-four and 280 pounds, Watt is a literal and figurative Houston giant, one who cemented all-time hero status with deeds over words, giving over taking, and always being gracious to those across the world who adored him.

The 33-year-old husband, father, and sports powerhouse may be calling it a career in Arizona, but he'll always be a Houstonian — and one of the greatest pro athletes to ever call the city home. Here's hoping if baby Koa Watt elects a career in pro football, he gets a call from Houston on draft night.

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