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 media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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