ON THE MOUND

Patrick Creighton: Astros rotation will ensure World Series runs through Houston

Gerrit Cole was a huge addition. Houston Astros/Facebook

“The work ethic has been established; the bar has been set so high, no one wants to disappoint his teammates.”

Astros broadcaster Steve Sparks said that to me on Monday afternoon, approximately five hours before first pitch of the Astros’ home opener. It seems so simple, yet it reveals so much.

As the Astros look to become the first team in MLB to repeat as World Champions since the 98-2000 Yankees, that statement by Sparks continues to stand out.

Last season, the Astros acquired Justin Verlander with literally one minute to go before the trade deadline Aug. 31.  Verlander seemed to be rejuvenated with the Astros. While Verlander is already likely a Hall of Famer, and he was having a pretty good year on an awful team, he was virtually untouchable when he arrived in Houston.  For example, consider these statistics for Verlander pre and post trade:

Detroit: 10-8 3.82 ERA 1.279 WHIP 8.0 H/9 3.5 BB/9  9.2 K/9

Houston: 5-0  1.06 ERA 0.647 WHIP 4.5 H/9  1.3 BB/9 11.4 K/9

Verlander found an entirely different gear once acquired by the Astros, energized by the team’s championship aspirations and the synergy in the clubhouse.

All preseason, A.J. Hinch raved about Gerrit Cole, the Pirates ace that the Astros acquired in the offseason to further bolster their starting rotation.  Cole was coming off something of a down year but also played on a bad Pittsburgh team with no real hopes of contention. Since coming to Houston, Hinch has marveled at the 27 year old’s dedication and preparation, both mentally and physically.

Cole then was nearly untouchable all preseason, and his first start of the year vs the Rangers was terrific, as he allowed only 1 run over 7 innings and punched 11 tickets. (Astros pitchers refer to strikeouts as "punching tickets").  Cole has been affected by his acquisition by the Astros the same way Verlander was. He is refocused, and at the top of his game.

This is a team that won 101 games last season despite having its top four starters on the DL for most of the month of June last season and two of its top starters, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, made two trips to the DL.  The Astros led MLB in runs scored last season (896 runs, or 5.53 runs/gm). The offense looks to be even better this year (already 5.6 runs/gm as well) and many of the bats haven’t even heated up yet.

Now add in the fact that the Astros rotation is arguably the best in baseball right now.  It’s going to be nearly impossible to keep Astros’ bats at bay for multiple games over a short period, but Houston figures to be one of the stingiest teams in baseball when it comes to allowing runs.

Consider this: Charlie Morton is the Astros fifth starter.  His numbers last season are better than all but two other AL teams’ third starter that pitched at least 100 IP in 2017, and one of those third starters (Lance Lynn/Minnesota) pitched in the National League last season.

For teams whose third starters didn’t have enough innings to qualify, I used their second starters’ stats, and the results were still the same.  The only third starter who pitched in the AL last year whose numbers were better than Morton’s was Marcus Stroman of the Jays.  Essentially, the Astros fifth starter would be at worst the third starter on all but one other team in the AL.

Last season, the Astros had Mike Fiers and his 5.22 ERA make 28 starts.  David Paulino made six starts, and pitched to the tune of a 6.52 ERA. Joe Musgrove made 15 starts last season and was rocked for a 6.12 ERA and had to be moved to the pen.  That’s 49 awful starts last season the Astros offense had to overcome. Somehow those three starters went a combined 16-18 in those 49 starts, mainly because the Astros offense stepped up when they pitched.  How do you think those starts go now with Verlander and Cole making them instead?

I know the season is only five games old, but honestly I didn’t need the five games to know this Astros team is actually better than last year’s championship squad.  The five games just helps to reinforce the concepts. No one on the team wants to be the weakest link, and it forces everyone to raise their level of play consistently.  Success forges success.

The World Series will go through Minute Maid Park in 2018.  The Astros will hang another Championship banner, and break MLB’s stretch of 18 straight non-repeat champions.  Mattress Mack is going to need that insurance policy again.

Bank on it.

Patrick Creighton is the host of “Nate & Creight” weekdays 1-3p on SportsMap 94.1FM Houston, and “Sports & Shenanigans” Sundays 12-5p CT on SB Nation Radio nationwide.  Follow him on Twitter: @pcreighton1

 

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The Texans didn't have an answer for Derrick Henry. Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Romeo Crennel made a valorous call that might have costed the Houston Texans from winning their second consecutive game on Sunday. Up by seven with 1:50 left in the fourth quarter, Crennel decided to call a two-point conversion following Deshaun Watson's one-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks.

During the two-point conversion, Watson had a look at an open Randall Cobb, but Titans' defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons got a hand on the ball to deflect the pass. The failed conversion allowed the Titans to take a 42-36 victory over the Texans inside Nissan Stadium. Tennessee scored 13 unanswered points, which included a seven-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown to send the game into overtime.

"I think I would do it again," Crennel said during his media availability on Monday. "You are on the road against a divisional opponent who is undefeated, and if you could get that two-point conversion — you shut the door on them. We had a guy open, but unfortunately, the ball got tipped and we did not make it. I would do it again because it was a good choice."

The decision to not kick the field goal caused somewhat of an uproar, but it is understandable why Crennel made the call. Crennel had faith in Watson to put the Texans in a position to close the game, similar to his 4th-and-4 call during last week's victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the end, Crennel's risky decisions could stem from the lack of faith he has in the Texans' depleted defense.

Houston's defense hit an all-time low against the Titans. They gave up a franchise-worst 601 total yards — with Derrick Henry accounting for 212 yards on 22 carries. But despite their struggles against the run, the Texans' secondary were just as faulty. They gave up a total of 338 yards through the air and allowed Tannehill to go 8-for-9 down the field during the Titans' final drive of regulation.

Had Houston's defense made a stop during the closing seconds of the fourth quarter, the Texans could have ended the game 2-0 under their interim head coach.

"I wanted to go ahead and get the two points — I felt like that would have put the game out of reach for them," Crennel said. "If we had gotten it, we would have been in much better shape. But we did not get it. We did not perform well in overtime, and they [Titans] won the game."

Following Sunday's heartbreaking loss, Texans safety Justin Reid said it best, "Had we converted on the two-point conversion, this would be a totally different conversation. So it is what it is."

Up next, the 1-5 Texans will look to bounce back from defeat against the 4-1 Green Bay Packers, inside NRG Stadium on Sunday. Kick-off is at 12:00 PM CT.

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