THE PALLILOG

Astros still rolling in house money, but their wildcards could be all aces

Framber Valdez continues to shine for Houston.Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

Hello September. The Astros enter the month with their best hitter ailing and having faded in the Most Valuable Player Award race while their future Hall of Fame pitcher is on the Injured List. But the Astros are so good and have stacked enough hay in the barn that neither negative figures to materially impact their regular season objectives. The Astros are cruising toward their fifth consecutive full-season American League West title. With 84 wins, 47 losses, and a cakewalk schedule for the next two weeks-plus the Astros would have to falter badly to not lock down the number one seed for the AL playoffs. Their lead over the Yankees is a cushy five games plus they hold the tiebreaker. That would make the Astros’ AL Division Series opponent the winner of the best-of-three series between the top two AL Wild Cards. Best guess on that right now is the winner of the Mariners vs. Blue Jays or Rays. The Indians/Twins AL Central runner-up and Orioles (?!) are also possibilities.

Unless the format changes again at some point after 2023, this is the final time the Astros get to take advantage of devouring American League West creampuffs with six series each against the Rangers, Angels, and Athletics. The new format reduces games versus each intradivision opponent from 19 to 14. Next season within the American League the more balanced schedule next should benefit the East division squads.

The injury bug bites again

Yordan Alvarez had an anemic August. His .312 slugging percentage looks like a misprint. Frame of reference: Martin Maldonado’s slugging percentage this season is .346. Yordan’s August .638 OPS was anything but august, 255 points lower than his previous low month of the season. Alvarez was due to cool off some from his beyond scorching June and also fabulous July, but it’s been a freefall compounded by injury issues with each hand. What matters is that Alvarez’s hands and swing are healthy when the postseason rolls around. Still, once the probable frontrunner for AL MVP, Alvarez can now follow the race like the rest of us. That race is almost certainly down to the Yankees’ Aaron Judge and 2021 MVP Shohei Ohtani of the Angels. After the Astros swept the Yankees in a doubleheader out of the All-Star break July 21, Alvarez had a huge 89 point OPS edge over Judge. Since then, a whopping 156 point swing in Judge’s direction has the Bronx Bomber sporting a 67 point cushion. That massive turnaround plus Judge’s edge in the field and on the basepaths makes a Judge over Alvarez verdict very easy.

The yin to Yordan’s yang in August was Alex Bregman’s well-timed return to excellence. After four mediocre months (batting average/OPS by month: April .233/.791, May .221/.708, June .273/822, .242/.776) Bregman had a month approaching the best of his 2019 superstar season, batting .362 with an OPS of 1.133. Three years ago Breggie bombed away to an OPS over 1.200 in each of the last two months.

As for Verlander and his minor (please, please, please) calf strain, it could cost him a third 20 win season. If back within the first couple of days of eligibility to rejoin the active roster, Verlander could have five more regular season starts. Verlander has 16 wins. Regardless, a third Cy Young Award still seems about in the bag. Props to Framber Valdez who could fill the 2019 Gerrit Cole role of being the Cy Young runner-up to his teammate. Framber’s streak of 22 consecutive quality starts is active and within two of the Major League record shared by Bob Gibson and Jacob DeGrom. Quality starts can be of dubious quality. Three earned runs allowed in six innings isn’t impressive, other than maybe in Colorado. I guess “at minimum kept his team in the game start” is unwieldy. But to not once get knocked around or not last six innings in 22 consecutive starts is Franomenal. Frambnomenal?

On the horizon

With 131 games down and 31 to go in the regular season, the Astros need a finishing kick of 23-8 to match the franchise record 107 wins posted by the 2019 squad. 23-8 is precisely what the ’19 ‘Stros did over their last 31 games.

With the calendar turning to September, rosters expand from 26 players to 28 for the remainder of the regular season. The Astros notable call-up is their number one pitching prospect Hunter Brown. There is a history of late season call-ups playing significant roles in the postseason. The Astros’ bullpen has on balance been tremendous, but if Brown can find enough opportunities to impress, it’s conceivable he could be a wild card middle inning power arm for the Astros’ playoff pen. Starting September 9 the Astros play 17 consecutive days. Verlander will miss at least the start of that stretch, so with Cristian Javier reinstalled in the rotation, Brown should be able to get a taste.

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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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