Jose Altuve is showing signs of life at a critical time for Astros

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60 game Major League Baseball season or 162 game season, when it's approaching mid-August and you want to win your division, as a second place team two and a half games off the lead you best not get swept in a three game series at the team ahead of you. That's what the 6-6 Astros face heading into their weekend set at Oakland, and face probably some of if not all without George Springer thanks to the right wrist sprain he incurred Thursday night in Phoenix.

You look at the mish-mash that is the Astros pitching staff and if this were a normal playoff format year missing the postseason would loom as a real possibility. Instead, with eight of 15 American League squads getting in it would be a pretty big surprise if the Astros' O doesn't lead them into the tournament.

The rotation and bullpen are both troublesome. In the rotation, Justin Verlander pitched the opener two weeks ago and came down with the forearm strain that we may hear in the next few days formally ends his season. Lance McCullers has been poor in two of three starts. Zack Greinke has had one bad one good. Josh James has already been demoted out of the starting rotation. Framber Valdez gets in off one quality lengthy relief outing. Brandon Bielak was okay at AAA last season and is not a hot prospect, but showed well in his first big league start Thursday. Thank goodness for rookie Cristian Javier. It's only two starts but he may have the goods. In the bullpen Roberto Osuna is likely done, Ryan Pressly was a complete disaster in blowing the Diamondbacks series finale, Joe Smith opted out, and Will Harris is gone. Dusty Baker is basically throwing darts when he waves in one of the 73 rookies now in the Astros' pen. Lefty Blake Taylor has been excellent. After that, a very shaky grab bag.

Dusty Baker giving Bielak the start Thursday night means now-nominal ace Greinke takes the ball for the series opener at Oakland. Mike Fiers pitched for the A's Thursday, so we'll have to wait for the first Astros vs. Fiers matchup since the Fiers-started Astros' cheating revelations were proven.

Before Thursday night Jose Altuve had looked as lost at the plate as we have ever seen him. 20 percent of the regular season is done (granted only 12 games) and after his three for four night Altuve is still batting only .192. Early last season Altuve endured an eight for 59 stretch (.136 batting average). He struck out only eight times in those 59 at bats. In his first 49 at bats this season Altuve struck out 13 times. Regularly chasing balls well out of the strike zone has been an issue. Altuve turned 30 in May so it's a pretty safe bet that he's not suddenly washed up and is more likely to get piping hot for a stretch. The Astros are on the hook with him for 26 million dollars per the next four seasons, so if Altuve winds up slipping from elite to just good it's problematic.

"Fans" in the stands

Props to the big league teams having some fun with some of the cardboard cutouts putting "fans" in the stands. If you catch any Astros-A's this weekend try to get a gander of the hot dog vendor to the right of home plate as you look in from the pitching mound. It's Tom Hanks, who was a vendor at A's games in the 70s. Best I've seen so far is Seattle where the Mariners had Jeffrey Maier over the right field wall in one game. In the 1996 American League Championship Series Maier was the 12-year-old who blatantly interfered with a fly ball, got away with it giving Derek Jeter a bogus home run as the Yankees were en route to their first World Series title of their dynasty in that era. The Mariners also had Steve Bartman down the left field line in a spot analogous to where he was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when…..ah, Google it. Next Mariners homestand, Seattle music legends Eddie Vedder and Jimi Hendrix are expected to be "in attendance."

Burst your bubble

Buzz kill to the Rockets-Lakers matchup Thursday night with LeBron James and Russell Westbrook sitting out. James's absence was no surprise. Lakers said he has a sore groin. If feeling great LeBron playing would have served no purpose behind increasing viewership for TNT. The game meant nothing to the Lakers who have already clinched the top seed in the Western Conference. James played 30 minutes Wednesday night and as amazing a specimen as he is LeBron turns 36 December 30. Having him go back-to-back in a meaningless game would basically have been stupid.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. One week to the Texans' first scheduled practice in pads.

2. James Harden, cut down the silly fouls! You know you're too good and too important to pick up four in the first half, or a fifth in the third quarter.

3. Wow athlete shared birthday pairs: Bronze-Hakeem Olajuwon and Jack Nicklaus Silver-LeBron James and Tiger Woods Gold-Michael Jordan and Jim Brown

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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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