CLOSER THAN YOU THINK

In spite of everything, the Astros are still close to the World Series

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Major League Baseball is set to announce its post-season schedule and stadiums … and Houston is in the mix!

Unfortunately, MLB is talking about Houston, the city, as in Minute Maid Park. After the first-round of wild card series, the National League playoffs will resume at Minute Maid Park and Globe Life Field in Arlington.

Meanwhile, American League playoff games will pick up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles and Petco Park in San Diego. The idea is to play post-season games at neutral sites. The World Series will be played at Globe Life Field. MLB plans to create bubbles in Houston, Arlington, Los Angeles and San Diego, similar to what the NBA is doing in Orlando.

Arlington was selected to host the World Series for several reasons, not the least being Arlington is in the Central time zone, which would provide optimum TV ratings.

Will Houston, as in the Astros, be part of post-season play? Two weeks ago, the Astros were battling the Oakland A's for first place in the American League West. The only question was, will the Astros finish first or second in the division. Their chances of qualifying for the playoffs all but assured. The Astros were shooting for their fourth consecutive division crown.

Two weeks later, the Astros are swirling down the drain with a gloomy, sub-.500 record, and losers of nine of their last eleven games. The Astros' California dreamin' has turned into a nightmare.

Houston's lead over the red-hot, surging Seattle Mariners has dwindled to a measly one and a half games. As the American League's two wildcard teams most likely will come from the East or Central divisions, the Astros are scratching and clawing for their playoff lives.

With the Astros' season on the brink, fans were surprised and disappointed that the team failed to add a first-rate pitcher or power hitter before the trade deadline.

Still there are embers of hope for the Astros as ailing stars slowly return to active duty. The biggest reason to stay the course is courtesy of Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Justin Verlander, who threw a bullpen session during the Oakland series. Manager Dusty Baker said it's possible that Verlander could take the mound for real this season.

All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman and reliable reliever Brad Peacock already are back from the injured list. Jose Altuve should return in coming weeks. Jose Urquidy had a quality start against the A's.

The Astros have been bedeviled with injuries, with Verlander, Peacock, Blake Taylor, Roberto Osuna, Josh James, Chris Devenski, George Springer and Lance McCullers all missing games. Last year's Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez played only two games before waving bye-bye for the season.

Despite the trials and travails, the injuries and bad breaks, let's remember that the Astros are up on the Mariners for a playoff spot. It's still better to be the Astros than the Mariners. And if the Astros continue to struggle and aren't competing for another title this year, they will be close to the World Series. This time, however, it would only be due to proximity.

Of course, things could also change in a hurry. Just five days ago the Astros had the best AL Title odds according to Baseball Reference. If the Astros string some wins together, things could shift dramatically.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

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Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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