DON'T COUNT 'EM OUT

Ken Hoffman's grand-slam reminder that the Astros can still take it back

The Astros have proven they can win when it counts. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

Win or lose (stop worrying — the Astros have not yet begun to fight in the World Series), this has been the team's greatest, and my favorite, season ever. I've been to more games at Minute Maid Park, and watched more games on ATT SportsNet, and enjoyed every minute, all the wins and even the losses. Thankfully there were more wins, 107 of them, the most in Astros history.

Rooting for the good guys

It's corny to say the Astros are the good guys, but they really are. After they won the American League pennant, and the players' families came onto the field, it looked like parents day at sleepaway camp.

When Jose Altuve blasted a walk-off 2-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to send the Astros to the World Series, the ball disappearing over the fence was only the third-sweetest image of the night. No. 2 was Altuve bunching his shirt together as he rounded third base so his teammates couldn't tear it off him — "The last time they did that, I got in trouble with my wife." The best moment was Altuve's 2-year-old daughter Melanie running into daddy's arms.

Real winners

This was the year only two pitchers won 20 games, and all of them were Astros. Justin Verlander finished 21-6, including a no-hitter. Gerrit Cole was 20-5 and the last time he lost a regular season game was back in prehistoric May. One of them will be named the American League's Cy Young Award winner in a few weeks.

Yordan Alvarez is a sure shot to win American League Rookie of the Year. He socked 27 homers and batted .313 after being called up in June. And the American League Most Valuable Player Award surely belongs to Alex Bregman, who clubbed 41 homers and drove in 112 runs. They say in sports, the best ability is availability. Well, between May 25 and June 18, Astros All-Stars Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa all were out with injuries. Bregman played every game and carried the Astros to a 14-8 record during that stretch. And Bregman really didn't kick his season into high gear until July. That's an MVP. Yeah, he's a cocky brat, but he's our cocky brat and we love him.

The MVP, Cy Young winner, Rookie of the Year, and Manager of the Year?

It will be the first time in baseball history that one team boasted the MVP, the Cy Young winner and Rookie of the Year. But it shouldn't stop there. A.J. Hinch absolutely deserves to be Manager of the Year. The Astros lineup is loaded, sure, but it takes a calm, mature hand to keep the clubhouse together and egos in check. Hinch has a fun side, too, playing along with announcer Julia Morales for touristy vignettes in baseball cities on the road.

And when it hit the fan, and an Astros official hurled inappropriate comments toward female reporters, and Astros executives botched the team's response, and still won't come clean on details, it was Hinch who stood tall in the clubhouse and said, no, The Astros will not tolerate any behavior like this, no way, under no circumstances.

That's a leader.

Even the ballpark food is a winner

Mat Drain, the Grand Poobah of Pickles, and his Aramark staff at Minute Maid Park stepped up their game this year, too. New items included Smoked Pork Burnt Ends Topped Tots, Calabrese Shrimp Sandwich, Frito Pie Corn Dog, and my choice, a simple but elegant Prime Rib Sandwich. And for dessert, how's Kahlua Tiramisu sound?

You practically had to eat with your pinky out this year. Smoked Pork Burnt Ends Topped Tots? Might be time to for Human Resources to check Drain for performance-enhancing Blue Bell. There were 13 Dollar Dog Nights at Minute Maid Park. In Houston, fans get a regular-sized frank on Dollar Dog Night. Other cities go cheap with smaller dogs that should have a toothpick stuck in them.

Kudos to the TV team

Here's how dominant our Astros were this season. If I got home a few innings late and turned on ATT SportsNet, I was shocked when the Astros were trailing in the game. I always expected them to be up 4-1. Our broadcast team of Todd Kalas, Geoff Blum, and Julia Morales was solid from spring training to the last game of the regular season. You didn't realize how wonderful they are until you listened to how horrible the Fox announcers were.

Step up, Astros fans

Buck up, Astros fans, the World Series is not over by a longshot, which if you listen to the oddsmakers, that's what the Astros are. Mattress Mack and I are still betting on them. Me in a theoretical sense, Mack in every sports book from Mississippi to Vegas.

Altuve, the greatest Astro ever, started slowly this season due to an injury. He was hitting .262 at the halfway mark. I remember a radio caller asking the host if he thought Altuve could get back to .300 this year. The announcer said nope, we're too deep into the schedule. Oh yeah? Altuve was over .300 less than two months later and finished at .298 with a career-best 31 homers. He's clutch in the post-season, too: 13 home runs in only 45 games.

Continue on CultureMap for Ken Hoffman's final thoughts on why he's not giving up on the Astros.

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Should Watson be in the MVP conversation? Composite image by Jack Brame.

The 2020 NFL season has a lot going on. Even if we take the coronavirus out of it, there's still a lot to digest. There are so many great performances being put up, one can make an argument for several players to win league MVP. The quarterback position typically gets more credit than others. If I restrict the argument to quarterbacks only, we're looking at Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Rodgers. Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and Derrick Henry are the leading contenders at running back. On defense, there really isn't a standout defender. The defense gets no love, but there are several guys in the running for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Deshaun Watson has been putting up numbers that have matched or rivaled some of the top MVP candidates over his last seven games. That stretch has coincided with the firing of head coach/general manager Bill O'Brien. Coincidence? I think not. Taking the reigns off a wild horse can often lead to said horse running free and flourishing! So question: Should Watson be getting league MVP considerations? I think so.

For starters, he's been one of the best players in the league over the course of the last seven games. 18 passing touchdowns and only two interceptions. The only quarterback with a better touchdown to interception ratio over that same span is Mahomes (19 and 2, as opposed to Watson's 18 & 2). Factoring in total season stats, of course Mahomes is doing much better. He's on a better team with a much better coach and general manager. The same could be said for Wilson and Rodgers. Put Watson on any of those teams and their records wouldn't be any worse than what they are now.

The Texans are 4-3 since firing O'Brien. While that isn't a great record, consider the fact they started the season 0-4 and looked like a total disaster. Watson looked like he was caged and couldn't wait to be freed. The team's record could be even better if the defense had a pulse. The proper supporting cast has a lot to do with a player's MVP candidate's chances. Now that one of his favorite weapons, Will Fuller, and the team's best corner, Bradley Roby, are both suspended for the rest of the season by the league for violating the substance abuse/PED policy, things will get much tougher for Watson.

If he continues to put up these cartoon like numbers, I don't see why he wouldn't be in the MVP conversation. He's currently fopurth in passing yards, sixth in completion percentage, tied for fifth in passing touchdowns, eighth in QBR, and third in quarterback rating. Watson is emerging as the star he was projected to be coming into the 2017 draft. I'm not saying Watson deserves to be the league MVP, but he deserves to be in the conversation. His MVP candidacy should be treated like the family gathering hierarchy: once you reach a certain age and/or status, you're no longer resigned to the kiddie table. Now you get to sit with all the adults, engage in their conversations, and gain access to things you couldn't previously. Watson won't win the MVP award, but I strongly believe he could finish top five. Especially if he keeps making lemonade with the lemons he's been given.

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