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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UH is off to a great start! Photo courtesy of UH athletics.

After what seemed to be an eternity, the University of Houston Men's Basketball program finally returned to the hardwood on Wednesday, November 25th. The Cougars started this season as the 17th ranked team in the country and looked to carry over their winning ways from lasts year's COVID-19 shorted season.

The Cougars ignited their season with a home victory against Lamar University on Wednesday. This was also the Cougars' first game since securing a victory over Memphis at the Fertitta Center on March 8 to clinch the American Athletic Conference regular-season title. Sophomore Marcus Sasser scored 25 points, and freshman forward Tramon Mark added 22 points and eight rebounds to push the Cougars to a blowout victory of 89-45 over the Lamar Cardinals. Although this game wasn't close, it showcased Houston's three best attributes: defending, rebounding and taking care of the ball. This game turned out to be a good tune-up in preparation for the Cougar's next two opponents, and showed just how dominant this team could be on the defensive end.

Their next game proved to a little more challenging against the Boise State Broncos. The Cougars led 11-9 midway through the first half before going on a 21-5 run resulting in a 34-19 lead at halftime. This run was a result of the Cougars once again showcasing their best attribute, defense. One example was DeJon Jarreau, a 6-5 senior guard, who shut down last year's Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Boise State's Derrick Alston Jr. Alston, who was held scoreless the entire game. Coach Kelvin Sampson said Jarreau's defense set the tone for the Cougars.

"He wanted that assignment," Sampson said. "He embraced that challenge. You could tell he was ready to go. DeJon is a competitor and a tough kid."

It wasn't an entire defensive showcase, for Quinton Grimes (last years second leading scorer for the Cougars) scored a game high 25 points for the Cougars, and once again, the Cougars had a 20 point lead in two consecutive games.

Boise State did make things interesting down the stretch. The Broncos went on an 18-5 run to cut a 20- point deficit to seven points with 2:26 left to go in the second half. But, Houston made nine straight free throws (15-of-17 for the game) down the stretch to secure a 68-58 victory over the Broncos.

The Cougars headed up to Fort Worth to play their most anticipated matchup so far against the 14th ranked Texas Tech Red Raiders.

This was the first meeting between the two schools in six years, and is the third straight neutral-site meeting between the former Southwest Conference opponents. There was a red and black-heavy presence of a pandemic-limited crowd at Dickies Arena, which provided a good ambience for a pseudo Texas Tech home game. It didn't seem to affect the Cougars, they got off to a fast start and took a big lead.

Houston went on a 21-4 run in the first half and Texas Tech went more than six minutes without a single field goal during that stretch. The Cougars' stifling defense was once again the best part of their game (sensing a trend?). Houston limited the Red Raiders' to 33.3 percent shooting and forced 12 turnovers in the first half. Sasser, for the second time in three games, was the leading scorer for the Cougars. He hit a big time 3 that gave the Cougars a 20 point lead with 12:27 left in the game.

Texas Tech wouldn't go away quietly though. They went on an 11-0 run in the second half and brought the Red Raiders back to within 55-48. Their comeback was short-lived, for Tech never got closer than seven points behind the Cougars and couldn't take advantage of some Cougar offensive mishaps. Houston's offensive woes continued throughout the second half, but they established such a commanding lead early on that Texas Tech didn't have enough time to overcome this deficit.

It is worth mentioning that the last 12 1/2 minutes of the game was atrocious for the Cougar's offense. They went 1-12 from the field, but timely free throws was their key to keeping the lead manageable. The Cougars scored their last 11 points on free throws, going 11 of 14 from the line over the final 6:43 of the game.

The final score was 64-53 and the Cougars are 3-0 to start the season. After this victory, the Cougars are now ranked number 10 in the latest AP College basketball poll.

Key to all 3 victories

One Thing To Note: In all three games this season, Houston held their opponents scoring to under 20 points in the first half. Lamar, Boise State, and Texas Tech have all combined to shot 27.4 percent and Houston has committed 31 turnovers.
Offense wins games, and defense wins championships. If that motto is true, the Cougars have a bright future ahead of them this season.

The Cougars have a few days off before their next game at home against the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday, December 5th.

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