TABLE TALK

John Granato: Comparing Houston's sports teams and stars to poker chip stacks

John Granato: Comparing Houston's sports teams and stars to poker chip stacks
Yes, Jose Altuve started with...you guessed it, a short stack. But he is doing just fine now. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

On Wednesday’s show I accidently (or not so accidently) called the Skeeters the first half champions and second half chip leaders. Lance started naming our town’s sports chip leaders. I thought I might break that down a little further by category.

The Team Poker Tournament

The Astros are far and away our chip leaders. They won a bracelet last year and their good fortune has continued this year. They always seem to have an ace in their hand and come up with clutch flops all the time. They’ve had some bumps in the road. They’re shaky on the river. You never know if they can hold on even when they’ve got a big lead in a hand but even with some misplays that they would like to punch themselves in the face over, they are still clearly the team to beat.

The Rockets have a nice stack as well. They won two bracelets in the 90’s and after a long dry spell they looked like they’d win their third in dominant fashion last year. They made it to the final table and were chip leaders with just one team to beat but they couldn’t close them out. It all fell apart when they got their aces cracked. That hurt badly. After that they misfired on 27 straight pots. Instead of playing more conservatively with the lead they just kept firing away until their stack disappeared and they were left wondering if they could ever win it again.

The Texans are one of the short stacks at the table yet still one of the most popular players. They’re Phil Ivey. Everyone loves to watch them and they get all kinds of attention but they rarely ever win. They have bursts when they go on the offensive and come up with huge hands but they find a way to screw up the betting and come away with small pots. To compound the situation they broke their right hand. After that every bet looked awkward. They tried to bluff with weak hands and no one believed them leaving them with practically nothing. The hand looks like it’s healing though and when it does they could be dangerous, maybe even win a bracelet someday.

The Dynamo are also short stacked. They’ve won bracelets in five stud but look outclassed at this table. Seems like they’ve never been able to compete with the big boys here. Still they have a small but loyal chip stack that never seems to leave them. They could gain some confidence with a lot of people watching the World Cup of Poker this summer. It will always be an uphill battle though. They’d be much better off on the European or South American Poker Tours but they like it here and will continue to compete at the highest level.

The Skeeters clearly don’t belong at this table but they have a chip and a chair and that’s all they want. They are content with a seat at the table and will fight for any small pot they can win. They are by far the scrappiest team at the table. They’ve garnered a lot of respect from the other players even though they don’t have the firepower to compete for bigger pots. They’re not going away anytime soon.

The MVP table

Alex Bregman is this year’s chip leader. He’s burst onto the poker scene and in just a few short years has proven to be the most clutch player in the game. He continues to win big pot after big pot with huge unbelievable cards on the river. He doesn’t have a bracelet yet but he’s the best bet to be our next bracelet winner. The players all love him. He’s a trash talker and isn’t afraid to celebrate wins. He’s gotten into some scraps with fans on the rail talking trash but no one seems to care as long as he keeps coming up clutch he’s going to be the fan favorite.

Jose Altuve is next with a bunch of chips still in play from last year’s bracelet winning performance. He started with the shortest stack in the field. No one thought he could even get into the game but here he is with a win last year and a big stack again this year.

James Harden has the next biggest stack. He won a bracelet last year as well but his struggles on the river continue. Two years ago he folded with the best hand in a big tournament in San Antonio but he bounced back nicely from it thanks to some tips from his buddy Chris Paul. Chris left him though and James reverted back to his old ways in his last tourney and lost a tough one by misplaying his hand late after building a big chip lead. If he figures out how to play the river he’ll be a champion one day.

Justin Verlander is still up there with the best players. He’s the new guy at the table but he’s certainly not new to the game. He came over from the Detroit Poker Tour where he was by far their best player. Everyone loves what he brought to the table. He’s made everyone around him better.  

JJ Watt with his 3 bracelets is still up there among the chip leaders despite not playing a hand in what seems like years. He’s the Doyle Brunson of this group. He’s larger than life. The fans love him but his best days are behind him. Yet here he is with a bunch of chips and the biggest rooting section on the rail.

Deshaun Watson is the biggest wildcard in this field. He hasn’t been playing long but he built up a huge stack with some big hands and then nothing. As an amateur he showed that he can play with anyone finishing runner-up and then winning the college tournament. If he can stay in more hands he is almost certain to be one of the best players in the field but he’s got to prove he can do it over the long haul.

Carlos Correa has been bleeding chips lately. As a younger player he was thought to be the next sure thing but maybe expectations were too high for him. He has unbelievable talent but he sits out way too many hands. You can’t win if you keep folding and Carlos has been folding a bunch. Needs to get back in the game and show what he can do.

George Springer is coming off his first World Series bracelet winning performance but it hasn’t been going well for him lately. He’s taken some big swings at huge pots but come up empty. He can’t keep whiffing on them if he’s going to win another bracelet. The question is how much longer he’ll be at the table. Will he outlast Altuve, Correa and Bregman? There aren’t enough chips for all of them. Who’s the odd man out? We’ll soon see.

Dallas Keuchel is clearly the short stack at the table. He won a bracelet in 2015 but those days are long behind him. He’s been playing better of late but dug himself a huge hole. His problem is he doesn’t play fast enough. The other guys are catching up to his moves and stealing pots from him. He’s slow and steady though and making some nice plays lately. Don’t count him out now but this just may be his last tournament here. Odds are he’s moving on and playing in another game next year.  

 

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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