How Astros are finding new, exciting ways to make Rangers feel the Houston heat

Chas McCormick and Yainer Diaz have come up huge. Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images.

If you want a snapshot of how this improbable, snakebitten, but still standing Astros season has gone so far, the defending World Series champs kicked off their most important regular-season series in years Monday night with Brandon Bielak on the mound.

Bielak wears jersey No. 64. He was followed by reliever Parker Mushinski, No. 67. Tonight’s starter for Game 2 of this showdown series against the first-place Rangers is J.P. France. He wears No. 68.

This isn’t the pitching rotation anybody expected. None of these hurlers was expected to play a critical role for the Astros this season. This looks more like “pitchers and catchers report early for spring training.” Players with Nos. 64, 67 and 68 are usually offensive linemen in the NFL.

But here we/they are. The Astros defeated the Rangers 10-9 Monday night in a rollicking, frustrating and ultimately glorious game that seemingly took forever. But you know what they say about good things come to those who wait. The Astros are only two behind and breathing down the Rangers’ necks for first place in the American League West and a likely first-round bye in the playoffs.

Monday night’s offensive heroics were provided by Chas McCormick (six RBI) and Yanier Diaz (two RBI and the game winner), two more players not expected to play leadership roles for the Astros this season.

These are not the star-studded Astros of years past, with Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Justin Verlander, Alex Bregman, Gerrit Cole, George Springer, Carlos Correa and more stocking the American League All-Star roster. This edition of Astros scratches out wins with McCormick, Diaz, Mauricio Dubon, Corey Julks, inherited pitching ace Framber Valdez and a supporting staff of guys maybe you never heard of a year ago. Kyle Tucker is the undisputed star of the 2023 Astros.

Minute Maid Park was electric Monday, packed with 38,000 screaming, standing fans. If they were expecting a tight, well played, playoff fever game, that’s not what they got. The Rangers jumped on Bielak for two runs in the first, three in the second and one more in the fourth. The Astros took the lead, briefly, with four runs in their half of the first inning, only to repeatedly fall behind. The Rangers had three multi-run leads in the game, only to watch each vanish.

It was a gut-punch loss for the Rangers. It remains to be seen if they can recover from the devastating defeat.

If the Rangers do fall behind the Astros, this will be the game when they walked the plank. They didn’t just snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, they went out of their way to blow it. Don’t think for a moment that the Rangers aren't feeling the Houston heat. They’ve got to be puckered up and desperate. If the Rangers lose tonight, timber! Look out below, where the Angels are playing their best ball of the season.

It wasn’t the Astros at their squeaky clean best, either. The Rangers treated Bielak like a kid playing the children’s Backyard Baseball video game set on “easy.” Bielak, coming off two solid starting efforts, gave up six runs, six hits, four walks, two homers and a wild pitch in 4-⅔ innings.

Reliever Phil Maton faced four batters in the seventh inning and didn’t record an out (two hits, two walks, three runs). Astros pitchers allowed seven walks. Astros fielders committed two errors. Astros batters left seven runners on base. It was sloppy for sure. But a win, especially a huge one like this, is a win.

The home plate umpire had a bad game, too. In the bottom of the ninth, with Tucker on first and nobody out, Jose Abreu struck out after the ump clearly missed a ball 4 pitch. Very upsetting. Later, and let’s keep this between us, I’ve watched 20 replays of Kyle Tucker scoring the winning run at home and I still don’t see his foot touching the plate. The play was reviewed and the safe call stood. Game over. Not complaining.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
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.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome