Here's what's on the line with a familiar face returning to action for Astros

Jose Urquidy returns to the rotation Friday night. Photo by Getty Images.

Entering the weekend the Astros sit a comfy four and a half games ahead of Oakland in the American League West. Comfy does not mean home free with the Athletics having six head-to-head cracks at the Astros coming over the last week and a half of the regular season. While the A's are in Toronto for three vs. the Blue Jays this weekend the Astros are in San Diego hoping their offense emerges from the mini-coma it entered in Seattle getting shutout the last two games. Jose Urquidy makes his return to the starting rotation Friday night. Urquidy has a month to impress if he is to make a postseason start. The odds are against him. Presently, in some order Lance McCullers, Framber Valdez, Zack Greinke, and Luis Garcia should be Dusty Baker's starters in a best-of-five Division Series.

The Astros get a Padres team that has been staggering. The Pads were one of the darlings of the first third of the season. They roared to a 34-19 start with shortstop Fernando Tatis alongside the Angels' Shohei Ohtani as the most exciting players in the game. Recurrent shoulder problems have Tatis now primarily playing right field. Despite missing 31 games Tatis still leads the National League in home runs with 36. But over the last three weeks the Padres have been in Tom Petty mode. Freefalling. Losing 14 of their last 19 games they've seen a four and a half game lead for the second NL Wild Card spot disappear. The Padres start the weekend a half game behind the Reds for that spot.

I'm not sure if Jose Altuve got a little homer happy when he was smacking them at a tremendous rate for a while this season, but he's been a bad hitter for more than a month now. Since a monster grand slam to key a win at San Francisco July 30, Altuve has hit just .242 with a crummy .300 on base percentage and .617 OPS, with zero homers in 120 at bats.

Michael Brantley carries an AL leading .317 batting average into the weekend. Yuli Gurriel is second at .313. .317 would be the lowest AL batting champ figure since Carl Yastrzemski's .301 in 1968, the year when offense had grown so impotent that the mound was lowered five inches starting the following season.

College football

After last weekend's limited schedule gave us a little taste to open the college football season, now for our devouring pleasure we're served a holiday weekend smorgasbord. The hands down top matchup goes off in Charlotte with third ranked Clemson a field goal favorite over fifth ranked Georgia. In two tilts of more interest to more people around here, the Houston Cougars play the Texas Tech Red Raiders at NRG Stadium, while the Steve Sarkisian head coaching era in Austin begins with a non-cupcake opener vs. Louisiana.

Dana Holgorsen starts his third season coaching UH. The first two have been major disappointments. In 2019 Holgorsen basically pulled the plug on the season midway and wound up 4-8. Last year the Coogs had to deal with multiple COVID disruptions but 3-5 is 3-5. To date that's far from the return on investment of four million dollars per season UH is seeking. Beating Tech would be a nice launch for UH, not that the Red Raiders are anything special. Matt Wells starts his third season in Lubbock. Off one good season at Utah State Wells got the Tech gig succeeding the fired Kliff Kingsbury. Wells has put 4-8 and 4-6 records on the board, in Big 12 play going 5-13. Perhaps future UH-Tech matchups become Big 12 games.

At UT, Sarkisian succeeds the fired Tom Herman hoping to begin more auspiciously than the Herman Error did (giving up 51 points in a home loss vs. Maryland). The Longhorns get Louisiana. Not LSU. Louisiana. The school prefers to not be referred to as Louisiana-Lafayette. Whatever. Last season Louisiana went 10-1 and finished 15th in the AP poll. Yes, the Rajin' Cajuns play in the much lower quality Sun Belt conference. Well, last season Louisiana opened with a 31-14 win at Iowa State. The same Cyclones who beat the Longhorns in Austin and finished number nine in the nation.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Texas A&M is off a boffo season in Jimbo Fisher's third at the helm and the Aggies seem positioned to be a power program. But giving Fisher a three-year extension meaning he essentially starts a 10-year 90 (NINETY) million dollar contract this year seems unnecessary and premature. Sure hope it works out better than Kevin Sumlin's extension/raises did for A&M. And Herman's at Texas for that matter.

2. Just one weekend to go before the Texans start their 20th NFL season! Let's replace the exclamation point with a period. If not a yawn.

3. Best college football fight songs: Bronze-USC "Fight On" Silver-Notre Dame "Victory March" Gold-Michigan "The Victors"

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Here's why the Texans will make the playoffs under Lovie Smith

1. The Houston Texans had a mentally tough practice Saturday. The team has worked a lot in pads and Lovie Smith noted the days starting to build up on them during this practice. The head coach said this is a good practice because it is like the fourth quarter of the games the team will end up playing.

2. Davis Mills threw one of the best passes he has thrown all camp on Saturday. In a red zone drill, he dropped back and whipped a pass between two defenders into the tightest window he has had all camp. Nico Collins hauled in the threaded pass for a score.

3. A few reps later Davis Mills struck again. With traffic from linebackers and defensive backs, he found Chris Conley for a score. It wasn’t as tight of a window as the first one, but Mills snapped it off nonetheless.

4. Pharaoh Brown made something hard look very easy on Saturday. With Mills rolling out and tossing the ball to Brown in the back corner Brown hauled in a one-handed catch and had both feet down. Touchdown. Brown then acted like it was no big deal.

5. Pharaoh Brown has had a wonderful camp. Lovie Smith named him the starting tight end. The thing that really jumped out to me today is he makes his work look easy. He isn’t straining to excel in his opportunities. The good ones always make it look easy and it has looked easy for Brown so far.

6. Rookie linebacker Christian Harris is on the shelf for a few days. He joins fellow rookie Kenyon Green as players who are injured. Max Scharping played left guard with Green down. Wide receiver Phillip Dorset practiced while veteran wideout Chester Rodgers did not.

7. Roy Lopez flashed again today. While Friday was about the rushing attack and Lopez made his presence felt at defensive tackle, he got into the pass rush Saturday. Lopez would have had a bone-crushing sack in a live rep.

8. Ross Blacklock hasn’t been consistent. A statement like that is good and evil. There are some plays where Blacklock looks like he isn’t a factor. I watched one today. A play later he had what would have been a sack on the play. He’s a player to watch in the preseason games closely.

9. Don’t expect to see Derek Stingley in the preseason opener next Saturday. Lovie Smith wouldn’t commit to the rookie cornerback playing in the preseason. Smith did say Stingley is on track to play week one in the regular season.

10. Brevin Jordan has had a nice camp and should be an important piece for the team. Jordan had a bad drop in 7-on-7 drills that he was beating himself up over for a few minutes. That was out of the norm. He’s been used a lot and will be on the field a bit it seems for the Texans.

11. Brevin Jordan also rattled off a few contenders for the quote of the day. He exclaimed he had taken care of himself this offseason and he finally had abs. He also revealed he’s quite the fisherman and once caught a 125-pound tuna. When asked what he did with the tuna Jordan laughed and said “RIP tuna!”

Listen to Cody Stoots weekdays afternoons 3-7pm on his show "The Wheelhouse" live on ESPN 97.5 + 92.5 FM or anytime on demand at the podcast here.

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