THE PALLILOG

Let's discuss the most intriguing subplots of Rockets vs. Thunder

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Last week in this space I wrote that if planning on winning the short season American League West title the Astros were strongly advised to not get swept in Oakland. They then proceeded to get swept in Oakland. Now after taking two out of three from a bad Giants' team the Astros enter the weekend at 8-10, four and a half games behind the Athletics and presently not even in a Wild Card position. The Astros remain a pretty solid pick to make the eight team AL tournament, but it has been jarring to see them reduced from their superpower status of the last three years to a mediocre squad. Hey, no team would simply roll on after losing its two dominant starting pitchers as the Astros did with Gerrit Cole leaving for the Yankees and then Justin Verlander lasting one start. Add in a decimated bullpen, a thus far awful Jose Altuve, George Springer having missed time to injury and not hitting his weight, and with this season's playoff format 8-10 is nowhere near the end of the world.

The Astros get the lousy Mariners for a three game series this weekend at Minute Maid Park. While it's a tough standard to say anything short of a sweep would be a disappointment, anything short of a sweep would be a disappointment. Certainly with regard to hopes of winning the West. The Astros have seven head-to-head matchups remaining with the A's.

Countdown to liftoff for Rockets vs. Thunder

Speaking of disappointing, what a buzzkill that thanks to a quad strain Russell Westbrook seemingly won't answer the bell for the Rockets to start the playoffs Tuesday. The hope is Westbrook misses no more than one game, and with basically round the clock treatment through the weekend maybe not that. It's simple: with Westbrook the Rockets are slight favorites over Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder, without him they are underdogs.

The Thunder may also be down a starting guard to start the series after rookie Luguentz Dort sprained a knee Wednesday. That's a vastly lesser loss than Westbrook for the Rockets, but it's a loss. Until his injury Dort started 28 straight games for OKC. He's a well-built tough defender who would take some of the defensive minutes trying to make James Harden's life more difficult. The Thunder backcourt is still strong. Paul had a terrific season and the four and a half month layoff wasn't a bad thing for his now 35-year-old legs which have betrayed CP3 at the end of full uninterrupted seasons in the past. Second year man 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is closing in on all-star level and is the Thunder's leading scorer. Dennis Schroeder is deserving of the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

In the frontcourt Danilo Galinari is very good and very key. We may look back and say whoever had the better series between Gallinari and Robert Covington is on the team headed to the second round. Getting Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, and multiple first round picks in the Paul George to the Clippers trade was magnificent work by Thunder General Manager Sam Presti who is one of the best in the business. Coming into the season exactly no one would have predicted the Thunder to be as good as the Rockets. They have been, including taking the season series 2-1.

Weakness vs. weakness is one of the many subplots of Rockets vs. Thunder. The downsized Rockets are a lousy rebounding team. Giving up second chance opportunities and baskets has been a real problem. The Thunder has a legit big in center Steven Adams, but nonetheless ranks dead last in offensive rebounding percentage.

Another subplot: is Mike D'Antoni coaching for his job in this series? D'Antoni's contract is up at season's end. If the Rockets postseason graph reads 2018 Western Conference Final, 2019 Western Conference Semifinal, 2020 Western Conference out in the first round, how enthused would Tilman Fertitta be about re-upping D'Antoni at an upper tier salary? Despite the unusual circumstances under which this season is playing out, if the Rockets get bounced in the first round the season is an epic failure, the Westbrook for Paul trade looks bad, and the future would not look very bright. Flip the coin with a Rockets' series win, and we have a very interesting presumptive second round Rockets-Lakers matchup to savor.

With only a couple of arenas being used in the Orlando "bubble" there will be weekday matinee games through the first round. No way the Lakers or Clippers would be slotted in those. Rockets-Thunder play game one at 5:30 (Central time) Tuesday, game two 2:30 Thursday, game four 3:00 the following Monday.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. The Texans put on the pads for the first time Friday, inside four weeks to the September 10 season opener at Kansas City.

2. Of course most college football players want to play. They don't (and shouldn't) get to make the decision for institutions. And enough from coaches disingenuously spewing "it's all about the kids."

3. Best sherbet flavors on a blistering hot day: Bronze-lime Silver-orange Gold-watermelon

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Houston scored in droves

Astros drub Twins in finale to take series win

Houston's offense showered Minnesota with hits in Sunday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games, with Houston's offense uncharacteristically ineffective in the loss on Saturday, they tried to turn things around with a win to take the series on Sunday. The Astros would bounce right back at the plate, getting hits and runs all through the afternoon to rout the Twins.

Final Score: Astros 14, Twins 3

Astros' Record: 37-28, second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez (3-0)

Losing Pitcher: Michael Pineda (3-4)

Valdez keeps rolling

Framber Valdez continued to impress in 2021 after starting his season on the IL, posting another quality start with a win against the Twins. After four scoreless frames, he allowed a solo homer to start the bottom of the fifth, just the third hit of the game for Minnesota to that point. He went on to retire the next three batters to get through the inning.

He faltered a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff double followed by a single, with a run coming across on an error on that play. He once again rebounded to finish that frame, then put up a 1-2-3 seventh to finish his day off, notching another quality start and a win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 2 K, 1 HR, 97 P.

Houston keeps their foot on the gas

While Valdez's outing was a highlight of its own, Houston's offense was the story of the day. They put their foot down on the pedal all day and did not let up, starting in the top of the first when Jose Altuve turned the first pitch of the game around for a single, later scoring on a sac fly by Alex Bregman to put the Astros in front 1-0.

After two scoreless innings, they got right back on the scoreboard in the fourth with a two-run homer by Kyle Tucker, then kept pouring it on with two runs in the fifth on a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel and an error, making it 5-0 at the time. The runs kept coming in the top of the sixth, with a two-RBI double by Michael Brantley, who would score later on a two-run bomb by Yordan Alvarez. Then, in the top of the seventh, Brantley struck again to push it to double-digits with a two-RBI single to make it 11-2 and give Brantley 4 RBI on the afternoon.

With Houston swapping out starters with the hefty lead, even their pinch-hitters were getting involved, with Chas McCormick leading the top of the eighth off with a solo shot to make it a ten-run game. They then loaded the bases with no outs, setting up a sac fly for Myles Straw to make it 13-2.

Astros take the series

In the bottom of the eighth, Ralph Garza Jr. came in as the first reliever out of the bullpen for Houston. He recorded two quick outs but then met Nelson Cruz, who lasered a solo homer to put it back at a ten-run game before finishing the frame. Houston put their twentieth hit on the board in the top of the ninth, their highest total this season, en route to another scoring inning with a sac fly by Robel Garcia to make it 14-3. Garza came in for his second inning of work to wrap things up in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Astros a successful end to this series and road trip.

Up Next: Houston will travel home before an off day on Monday to rest before 20 days of consecutive games. They'll kick off a six-game homestand on Tuesday, welcoming in the Rangers for two starting at 7:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (3-1, 2.96 ERA) will make his return from the IL for the Astros, though Jake Odorizzi will "piggy-back" him, and Kyle Gibson (4-0, 2.13 ERA) will take the mound for Texas.

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