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

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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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Yordan Alvarez came up big in Game 5. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The Astros can win the pennant Friday night. Can't dangle the carrot any closer in front of the face than that. Taking the last two games at Fenway Park has the Astros in excellent position, but any notion that a third American League championship in five years is now inevitable, is silly. The Astros are probably 80 percent or better to advance, but of course the Red Sox could win games six and seven at Minute Maid Park à la the Nationals in the World Series two years ago. The Astros had all the momentum after winning three straight in D.C., came home for the coronation, and pfffft. You have momentum...until you don't. It's nothing to bank on. The Red Sox had all the "mo" after clobbering the Astros in games two and three of this AL championship series. Then Jose Altuve crushed the eighth inning tying home run in game four, ahead of the seven run volcanic eruption of a ninth inning. Nine more Astro runs later in game five, and here we are.

One key distinction that makes the Astros hand look stronger up 3-2 now than vs. the Nats, the Red Sox don't have Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer ready to pitch. Like Framber Valdez vs. Chris Sale in game five, game six is another starting pitching rematch. Alvin native Nathan Eovaldi grossly outpitched Luis Garcia in game two. We'll see if Sox manager Alex Cora winds up regretting even more using Eovaldi to start the fateful game four ninth inning. Eovaldi only threw 24 pitches, but three nights later we'll see what and how much he has in the tank.

After pitching horribly against the White Sox and then the Red Sox, and then citing a sore knee, Luis Garcia is his own huge question mark. So was Valdez before Wednesday spinning one of the great postseason pitching performances in Astros' history. Framber was awful in each of his first two postseason starts, absolutely magnificent in cruising through eight innings in game five. Should the Sox force Game Seven, Valdez certainly is a relief option on two days rest. Jose Urquidy would start, opposite Eduardo Rodriguez in a game three rematch.

Valdez and the Astros hope his next outing is Tuesday night in game one of the World Series. Ideally, at Minute Maid Park against the Atlanta Braves. Alas, the defending champion Dodgers remain alive and kicking, having won their fourth do or die game already in this postseason to send the National League Championship Series back to Atlanta. Now, if somehow we knew as fact that the Astros are going to win the World Series, I'd estimate approximately 99 percent of Astros' fans would prefer to beat L.A. Since we don't know that the Astros are going to win it all, getting the Braves would be more favorable for the Astros, if for no other reason than the Astros would get home-field advantage. Should the Braves make it, among other factoids Charlie Morton would be in his third World Series with three different teams in the last five seasons (Astros in 2017, Rays last year, Braves this). If the Braves can close out the Dodgers Saturday, Morton is Atlanta's likely game one starter at MMP. Provided the Astros are the AL Champs of course.

Watt a matchup for the Texans

The Texans play at Arizona Sunday. Yeah, and? You imagine that J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins find the two team's current situations amusing? The Texans are a 1-5 stink bomb that will keep on stinking. The Cardinals are 6-0 and an emerging Super Bowl contender. While Deshaun Watson continues collecting about 600 thousand dollars per week to do nothing (and waiting to become a Miami Dolphin?), Kyler Murray has made the leap to upper echelon NFL quarterback.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Decisions, decisions. Astros-Red Sox game 6 or Rockets home opener vs. Thunder. Tough call?

2. The Rockets will regularly be overmatched and probably lose 55 games or more again this season. At least they have young talent to offer some hope. The Texans presently have near nothing.

3. Best 2021 Astros' postseason journey signature food: Bronze-Atlanta/Los Angeles, anything? Silver-Chicago, deep dish pizza Gold-Boston, lobster roll

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