The Pallilog

Rays are a solid team, but Astros should advance

Astros Rays Charlie Morton
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The Astros start their postseason 11 wins away from putting a glorious ribbon around what would rank as one of the greatest single seasons in Major League Baseball history. Last year the Red Sox finished off their claim, winning 108 regular season games then dethroning the Astros en route to winning the World Series. The 107 win Astros open their American League Division Series as big favorites against Tampa Bay, but the Rays are no million to one shot.

Any 96 win team should be taken seriously, even though the lone Ray who would crack the Astro lineup is outfielder Austin Meadows. For context, his September was as good as Alex Bregman's, his season better than Yuli Gurriel's. Overall though the Rays have a middling offense. Their four home run clubbing of Oakland in the Wild Card game was stout, but for the season the Rays finished ninth of 15 AL teams in runs scored. Their pitching is way better than middling. The Rays led the AL in earned run average (3.65 to the Astros' 3.66), and that's with pitching more than 20 percent of their innings against the Yankees and Red Sox. Manager Kevin Cash maneuvers a deep and versatile bullpen.

The Astros are of course extremely confident with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole starting games one and two. Rays' game one starter Tyler Glasnow has a better ERA than both. Big catch: Glasnow's 1.78 was compiled over only 12 starts. He was awesome the first month plus of the season before a forearm injury sidelined him for almost four months. Over the last three of his four comeback appearances Glasnow looked fantastic. He is capable of stifling the Astro attack, but probably for no more than five innings. Lord knows Verlander had numerous outings with puny run support this season. Cole draws last year's AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. Like Glasnow Snell missed a chunk of the season to injury. Unlike Glasnow, Snell did not look good in his most recent outings.

The Astros understandably wouldn't guarantee Charlie Morton one year 17.9 million dollars so he signed with the Rays for two years 30 mil. The Astros in July traded for Zack Greinke who costs them more than 20 mil per season (pro rata this year, and the next two if not traded). Game three matchup in St. Petersburg: Greinke vs. Morton.

It will be portrayed as a stunning upset if the Rays deny the Astros a third straight American League Championship Series appearance. It would not be a stunning upset. Well, the Astros getting swept would be stunning. "Baseball happens" is really the only reason to pick the Rays. That's no way to hazard a guess. Astros in three.

The Yankees-Twins series is more evenly matched on paper. The form chart makes it a home run derby. The Twins shattered the single season homer record the Yankees set last season (267) by hitting 307. The Yankees hit 306. The Astros were third with 288.

And then there is the Texans...

Off all the matchups on the week five NFL schedule, Texans-Falcons is certainly one of them. The Texans are 2-2 after their pitiful offensive home showing in the loss to Carolina, but that's good for a share of first (and a share of last) in the AFC South. The Falcons' season is in much worse shape at 1-3, playing in an NFC South with a Saints' squad likely to win at least 10 games.

Bill O'Brien is a mediocre head coach, who produces mediocre teams. O'Brien is not a godawful head coach, though on average it's probably about every other game that he commits game or clock management somewhere from questionable to absurd. If the Texans' goal is to avoid having a bottom of the barrel coach more so than seeking greatness, that's just sad. The former isn't really their goal but it may as well be given the status quo. Maybe some year while O'Brien is still on the job the Texans break out of the mediocrity muck and look like a bonafide contender. Anyone not on the Texans' payroll believe that likely? How many ON the Texans' payroll truly believe that likely?

As an alleged creative offensive mind, O'Brien is calling the shots for one of the five teams to already twice this season fail to score 14 points in a game. The Texans pulling it off in both their home games. The Jaguars and Panthers have good defenses but if you don't score 14 points, your offense stunk like rotten eggs. Add in that the Jaguars and Panthers each came to town down one of their best defensive linemen, and a starting cornerback.

The Falcons are another of the teams with two sub-14 point offensive outputs. The Texans better win Sunday since next week they face their most likely loss of the season. At Kansas City.

Last season the Texans padded their fool's gold 11-5 record by beating a bunch of bad and/or backup quarterbacks. They've already faced two backups this season, and sit 2-2. But you cynic you, another division championship banner could be in the Texans' future.

​Buzzer Beaters

1. In the 162 game schedule era (1961-) only eight teams won more than the Astros' 107 this year. Only four of those eight won the World Series. 2. Another lackluster college football schedule this week. Next week: Texas-Oklahoma, Alabama at Texas A&M. 3. Most likely winners of the other Division Series: Bronze-Yankees Silver-Dodgers Gold-Cardinals


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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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