SO FAR, SO GOOD

It's still early, but the Astros may have their groove back

George Springer has been red-hot. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It wasn't just a comeback 10-5 win over the Oakland A's to open the American League Divisional Series – on the heels of sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card Series …

It was the way the Astros took the A's best shot, dusted themselves off and decimated the A's vaunted relievers with clutch hits, a two-out rally and home run barrage.

How the Astros got their groove back.

You remember visions of 2017 – Jose Altuve rounding third and heading for home, Carlos Correa pounding homers in the post-season, George Springer bashing hit after hit, and the cute, lovable Astros punctuating their first World Series title with Carlos Carrera getting on one knee to propose marriage. Aw, wasn't that the sweetest thing ever?

The Astros may not be so cuddly these days, especially with the A's, and the Yankees and Dodgers in the waiting room, still spittin' fire over the Astros sign-stealing scandal. We may see the Astros playing fair and square these days, Altuve's pretty little daughter running to daddy's arms, Alex Bregman raising money to feed the needy and Michael Brantley speaking so eloquently about social issues. But to the rest of the baseball world, the Astros are still low-down, dirty scoundrels and fans would like nothing more than to watch their team – be it the A's or anyone else – send this group of Astros home humiliated.

Get in line, it may be a long wait, and you probably won't like the ending. The Astros are 3-0 so far in the playoffs, bats blazing and making all the right moves. Sure they limped into the playoffs, two games below .500 during the COVID-shortened season. Well, they ain't below .500 now.

The Astros are a leg up in this best-of-five series against the A's. Since the schedule has them playing five straight days, the A's won't be able to hide starting pitcher Mike Fiers, who'll finally have to confront the Astros face-to-face after turning witness for the prosecution against his old teammates in the sign-stealing scandal.

If fans look at the Astros and see cheaters, like Jerry Seinfeld peered into Newman's eyes and saw pure evil, go ahead, the Astros will embrace their villain role. Carlos Correa isn't backing down: "What are they going to say now?"

That was after the Astros shoo'd away the Twins. What are they going to say now, after Correa blasted two homers, three hits and four RBI against the A's? George Springer blasted four hits, and Altuve, mired in a season-long slump, woke up with two hits and two key RBI? Kyle Tucker had two hits. The only thing missing from Bregman's homer was him staring into the dugout camera like the brash, in-your-face wise ass we love. You don't like it? Do something about it.

Yeah, yeah, the A's came into this series with a heralded bullpen, the best in the league. Except for now. The Astros relievers, Brian Taylor, Enoli Paredes, Cristian Javier and Ryan Pressly drilled holes in the A's bats, with no hits over five lockdown innings. Meanwhile the Astros battered seven A's relievers for seven runs. For sure, what are they going to say now?

It was only one game, but it was a statement win by the Astros.

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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