THE PALLILOG

MLB's draft punishment could be a blessing in disguise for Astros

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

For all my character flaws, naivete is not among them. Unless I'm too naive to know otherwise. I think the baseball owners and players reach an agreement on a season longer than the insulting 48 games Commissioner Rob Manfred could cram down the players' throats. Could be mere wishful thinking.

The Major League Baseball Draft is consequential but pales in interest and significance relative to the NFL Draft and NBA Draft. The lower interest is explained simply in that college baseball is much less popular than its football and basketball brethren. The significance is less because of the importance of international signings (i.e. Dominican Republic) in Major League Baseball of players not eligible for the draft. Still, the draft matters.

The Astros' cheating program cost them their first and second round draft picks both this year and next. That's additionally problematic because new General Manager James Click inherited an Astros' farm system that now ranks in the bottom quarter among the 30 organizations. A possible silver lining of sorts to being out their top two picks two years running, the Astros save millions of dollars in signing bonuses they could choose to pour into, say, the Keep George Springer Fund.

The Astros' first selection was the 72nd overall choice, high school pitcher Alex Santos from the Bronx who grew up less than two miles from Yankee Stadium. Yes, a diehard Yankees fan. He'll adapt. Over the last 10 drafts, not one player taken 72nd has become a decent big leaguer. The Astros nailed a number 72 in 1989, selecting Shane Reynolds out of the University of Texas. Reynolds's 103 wins rank eighth on the Astros' career win list. How many of the seven ahead of him can you name? Answer below.

Turn back the clock

Kudos to AT&T Sportsnet for getting ahold of the original telecasts of the epic 1980 National League Championship Series between the Astros and Phillies. The ABC broadcast team of Keith Jackson, Don Drysdale, and Howard Cosell called a best-of-five series that went the distance, with games two, three, four, and five all going extra innings. Games three, four, and five air Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights respectively. At the Astrodome the Astros blew eighth inning leads in games four and five. In the decisive fifth game the Phils rallied from down 5-2 in the eighth against Nolan Ryan, wound up winning 8-7 in 10, and then went on to beat the Royals in the World Series. Almost 40 years later no spoiler alert was warranted!

Sunday night ESPN debuts the documentary "Long Gone Summer." That's the story of the 1998 Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run derby. After lying for years McGwire in 2010 finally fessed up to steroid use. 10 years later, Sosa has never admitted use. You don't suppose…?

NBA

As the NBA prepares for a resumption of play at the end of next month the Rockets are considered a second tier title contender. The first tier consists of the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the Rockets' last NBA Finals game, and the winning of their second championship as they polished off a four game sweep of the Orlando Magic. There have been only three Finals sweeps since: Lakers over the Nets in 2002, Spurs over the Cavaliers in 2007, and Warriors over the Cavs in 2018. In the quarter century since the Rockets last reached the title round, more than half the league's franchises (15 of 29) have played for the O'Brien Trophy.

The route to the 2020 title will be the most unique in league history. An ESPN report Thursday said as many as 50 players are iffy about the prospect of entering the Disney World "bubble" to play. Players will have the right to opt out, but they would be opting out of getting paid. How many ultimately will choose to stay away?

Fore!

The PGA returned to play Thursday in Fort Worth with the first round of what for years and years was known as the Colonial Invitational. The field is loaded (albeit without Tiger Woods) and expanded. Tom Lehman won the Colonial in 1995, so he was invited to play as a former champion. Lehman came credibly close to shooting his age in round one. Lehman is 61. He shot 65! It's a par 70 course as opposed to the more typical par 72, but that's phenomenal.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Joe Niekro 144, Roy Oswalt 143, Larry Dierker 137, Mike Scott 110, J.R. Richard 107, Nolan Ryan 106, Don Wilson 104

2. Of course NASCAR should have done away with Confederate flags at its races. A long time ago.

3. Best golf movies: Bronze-anything but Caddyshack II Silver-Tin Cup Gold-Caddyshack

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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