Astros take Game 5. Photo by Getty Images.
It was in 1995 after the Rockets won their second straight NBA Championship that Head Coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously said "Don't EVER underestimate the heart of a champion!" This won't be happening, though those who go back to the Rockets' golden era would find it spine-tingling (I know I would) to have Rudy T. belt out his most famous quote followed by "Play Ball!" before game six Sunday night.
Down two games to none in the American League Championship series, the Astros delivered a "Godfather Part II" level sequel to their September obliteration of the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Field. Last month it was a cumulative 39-10 three game destruction. This time it was "only" 23-12, but with the higher stakes of the ALCS, sweeping three again in Arlington is an extremely clutch been there, done that, did it again performance. It seems impossible for Jose Altuve to keep adding entries to his postseason legend but he keeps coming up with additional chapters for the book. Altuve's top of the ninth three-run homer Friday turning a 4-2 deficit into a 5-4 lead and ultimately win is up until now the defining moment between the Astros and Rangers franchises. But the job is not yet complete.
After winning three straight on the road the Astros need to avoid another deja vu feeling. The road team having won all five games of this series reminds of the 2019 World Series when the Astros rallied from 0-2 down to take three games at the Washington Nationals, only to then lose games six and seven at home. Despite their perplexingly poor performance at Minute Maid Park this year the odds are solidly against the Astros again failing in both games six and seven, but those odds are roughly 4-1, not 100-1. So here we are, the Astros one victory from a fifth World Series appearance in seven years.
The game six pitching matchup favors the challengers. One could argue that J.P. France should get the ball instead, but Framber Valdez gets a shot at redemption with the game six start as the Astros try to close out the upstaters. Valdez had a first inning debacle in losing game two, that after a crummy performance against Minnesota in the Division Series. In seven innings over those two outings Valdez has been torched for 14 hits, walked four, and given up nine earned runs plus one unearned run caused by his own error. On balance over the last four months Valdez has been lousy with a 5.09 earned run average over 18 starts. Still two seasons away from free agent eligibility, he can forget about a huge contract extension this offseason.
The Rangers go with game two winner Nathan Eovaldi. The Alvin native has been money this postseason in each of his three starts, though the Astros did manage three runs in six innings against him. It's not worth anything now but noteworthy anyway: two years ago the Astros won the pennant at Minute Maid Park by beating Eovaldi in game six. That was Astros 5-0 over the Red Sox with Luis Garcia the winning pitcher.
If there is a decisive seventh game Monday, the game three starting pitching matchup comes back around. That means Cristian Javier for the Astros, Max Scherzer for the Rangers. That means clear advantage Astros, though as always in one game you never know.
Javier doesn't have the body of work yet to rate with the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time but what he has done over four starts is awesome. Even after Josh Jung proved Javier a postseason mortal by hitting a two run homer off of him, "El Reptil" sits with a cold-blooded 0.82 earned run average with the opponents' batting average in those four starts a feeble .071.
Scherzer meanwhile would try to summon up the stuff and command to give the Rangers a chance through the early innings. At 39 years old and rusty he may not have the goods to do so, but he would not be cowed by the pressure of the situation.
Scherzer does have game seven at Minute Maid Park experience. He started the ultimate game of the 2019 World Series and in an immensely gritty performance held the Astros to two runs despite needing 103 pitches to get through five innings. No need to get into how that game and series ended.
Thoughts on the benches clearing episode in the bottom of the eighth Friday. Trailing 4-2 and having walked the leadoff man, Bryan Abreu would have been foolish to intentionally drill Adolis Garcia in his first plate appearance after his game turning three-run homer off of Justin Verlander. Nevertheless, batters don't take well to 99 miles per hour coming toward their head and shoulders. Garcia snapped, the benches unnecessarily emptied, but fortunately nothing stupid came from it. Garcia and Abreu were both ejected and then Dusty Baker got tossed arguing Abreu's ejection. Abreu getting run may well have benefitted the Astros. He faced two batters, walking one then hitting the other. After the nonsense, Ryan Pressly came on to get three straight outs and keep the Astros within two going to the ninth. The stakes are too high now for any aftershocks within this series, but this will likely be remembered in 2024.
With the massive thunderbolts Jose Abreu has been delivering the last three weeks, it's incredible that he went 105 games (his last 55 games with the White Sox plus his first 50 games as an Astro) mustering one measly homer. Even if he was getting out of traction every day before heading to the ballpark. Even if he was using a pool cue stick instead of a bat. The raw power is, well, Yordan-esque. Speaking of Mr. Alvarez, best jersey I saw at Globe Life Field was an Astros fan wearing a number 35. Not "Verlander" on the back, but "Fields." As in Josh Fields, who Jeff Luhnow traded for Alvarez in 2016. If the Astros opt to retire Verlander's 35 at some point, Fields should be invited to the ceremony.
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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule a first video segment goes up at 4PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, with the complete audio available in podcast form at outlets such as:
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.