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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Texans vs. Vikings could have fans in attendance. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

The Houston Texans say it's time that fans were allowed to cheer on the home team at NRG Stadium. On Thursday, the team announced extensive safety protocols that would put 15,000 fans in the stands for the Week 4 game against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 4.

While the Texans are awaiting permission from city and county officials to host a limited number of fans - socially distant and wearing masks – no plans have been announced how much tickets will cost, and who'll have the opportunity to buy them.

You have to love the free enterprise system: hundreds of tickets for the Oct. 4 game already are on sale on secondary market websites. Lower bowl tickets are going for $800 and up. If you don't mind sitting in the nose bleeds, tickets can be had for around $250.

So the question becomes, if you had the chance, would you attend the Texans game in early October? The tickets are big bucks, and there is a whammy – COVID-19. While the rate of COVID-19 infections is on the decline in Houston, the virus remains a major factor in our daily lives, and there's no guarantee that the pandemic won't spike here again.

Here's the rub, at least for me. Of all the sports we have in Houston, a Texans game might be lowest on my wish list of attending in person. Television does NFL games the best. There are dozens of cameras, so when a receiver catches a pass on the sidelines, we get several views, in slow motion even, to see if the receiver's feet were in bounds. We can almost feel the crunch of a quarterback sack. We get highlights of other games. You don't have to sit next to a face painter like David Puddy.

The NFL is a made-for-TV production. Which is, I suspect, part of the reason the Texans rarely open the roof at NRG Stadium. With the roof closed, the field becomes a controlled TV studio, with no worries of weather pranks.

Television doesn't do basketball or baseball nearly as well. Conversely, the experience of attending those games is terrific fun. What beats eating a couple of dogs at an Astros game? Is there even a traditional food at NFL or NBA games?

The Texans promise that strict safety rules will be enforced. And I believe them. Fans will be scattered over the 67,000-seat stadium. I'm not sure how much of a home field advantage that will be. Most of the crowd noise will come from pre-recorded tapes.

Here's one worry. Sure fans will sit apart and socially distanced. But what will happen when the game is over? Will fans file out in orderly, non-contagious single file? I flew Southwest a few weeks ago. The airline makes a big deal – we don't sell the middle seat. Passengers kept their distance during the flight. When the landed, you know how it is, everybody got up and piled into the aisle, shoulder to shoulder for several minutes.

What will happen if some goofball takes off his/her mask during the Texans game? Will there be enough security to handle each case?

Baseball is planning to have some fans attend post-season games at Minute Maid Park next month. UH Cougars, the Dynamo and Dash are playing in front of small crowds. It remains to be seen how safe – or how risky – allowing fans at sports events will be.

Will parents let their kids attend? Is waiting for a vaccine the smart play? If President Trump is right, that could be only a matter of weeks away. If scientists and doctors are right, nestle in for pandemic life another year. Even if scientists do come up with a vaccine, how many Americans will roll up their sleeve? Some believe, in the case of COVID-19, the cure may be worse than the disease. Not me, the moment Dr. Fauci says the vaccine is safe and effective, I'm sprinting to CVS.

The thinnest of silver linings, if ever there was a year worth sitting out, 2020 has been it for Houston sports fans. The Astros are scratching to stay above .500 (their present position), Jose Altuve hasn't had an extra base hit or RBI in almost a month, and Justin Verlander is throwing bullpens on his way to recovery. The Rockets are searching for a new coach, and possibly another team willing to take Russell Westbrook in a trade. The Texans season could go either way, we'll know if a few short weeks.

Why the rush to fill stadiums? The NBA is thriving in a bubble. Why not baseball and football? There's a fine line between safe and sorry.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo already has safety plans for next year, including masks and distancing. That will be interesting. Good luck controlling crowds pushing and shoving for corn dogs and funnel cakes.

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