THE PALLILOG

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

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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Astros defeat the Orioles, 5-1. Composite Getty Image.

Ronel Blanco pitched seven strong innings and Chas McCormick homered twice to lead the Houston Astros to a 5-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday.

Yordan Alvarez added a two-run shot to help Houston extend its winning streak to four games.

Blanco (8-2), who threw seven hitless innings in his last start, allowed four hits and a run with three strikeouts for his third straight win.

Alvarez put the Astros on top with his 16th homer, which came off Corbin Burnes (8-3) in the third, and McCormick made it 4-1 in the fifth. McCormick got his fifth career multihomer game when he connected again in the eighth.

Burnes allowed five hits, including a season-high two homers and a season-most four runs in seven innings to snap his career-best streak of 10 consecutive quality starts. He was 5-0 in seven starts since a loss at Washington on May 7.

Jordan Westburg homered in the second for the Orioles, who set a franchise record with 21 straight games with a home run to surpass the 1998 squad's 20-game streak.

Baltimore had troubled stringing hits together Saturday after scoring 28 runs combined in the last two games. The top four batters in their order combined to go 1 for 13 against Blanco and Houston's bullpen.

Ryan Pressly threw a scoreless eighth before Josh Hader struck out two in a perfect ninth to end it.

Westburg connected off Blanco with one out in the second to put the Orioles up 1-0.

Yainer Diaz opened Houston’s second with a triple on a line drive to right field. The Astros tied it when he scored on a sacrifice fly by Mauricio Dubón with one out.

McCormick singled with no outs in the third and the shot to center field by Alvarez came with two outs to put Houston on top 3-1.

McCormick’s home run to the seats in left field extended the lead to 4-1 with one out in the fifth.

Cedric Mullins tripled off the wall in center with one out in the seventh. Colton Cowser hit a sharp line drive, but was robbed of a hit when shortstop Jeremy Peña made a leaping catch for the second out. Blanco then retired Ramón Urías to end the inning and leave Mullins stranded.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Astros: RHP Jake Bloss, who made his major league debut Friday night, was placed on the injured list with right shoulder discomfort.

ROSTER MOVES

Astros: RHP Nick Hernandez was optioned to Triple-A Sugar Land on Friday night. ... LHP Bryan King was selected to the MLB roster and RHP Luis Contreras was recalled from Sugar Land on Saturday. … RHP Alex Speas was designated for assignment.

UP NEXT

Houston LHP Framber Valdez (5-5, 3.91 ERA) opposes RHP Albert Suárez (3-1, 2.05) in the series finale Sunday.

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