The Pallilog

Rockets face tough stretch, but 3 seed is within range

Mike D'Antoni has a different looking roster now. Getty Images.

Don't look now (actually, do look now!), but the Rockets are within a game and a half of third place in the Western Conference. After two clunker shooting games in a row James Harden went nuts on Miami with 58 points Thursday night, so the Rockets roll with a four game winning streak into arguably their toughest three game stretch of the season. They're at Boston Sunday afternoon (though the Celtics have slumped badly of late) then at Toronto Tuesday before coming home for Philadelphia Friday. If the Rockets win two of those three they are a very good bet to reach 50 wins. 50 would be a big come down from last season's 65, but a fine recovery from this season's lame 11-14 start.

Call to arms

The first week of spring training games has produced the first mild "uh ohs" for the Astros. 40 percent of their projected starting rotation is ailing already. Collin McHugh lasted one inning of his spring debut before reporting a sore back. Josh James is down with a quad strain that has already knocked him out of the race for the fifth starter slot he was considered most likely to earn. But the Astros have depth options starting with Framber Valdez and Brad Peacock, plus Forrest Whitley almost certainly arrives mid-season. As long as Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole remain healthy and effective, the Astros rotation should be just fine. Just not as good as last season's.

Big deal

So, by one basic measure the Phillies got a "deal" in landing Bryce Harper with a 13 year $330 million dollar contract. Harper's average annual salary is "only" about $25.4 million dollars. Manny Machado gets $30 per over 10 seasons with the Padres, Nolan Arenado locked in $32.5 per over the next eight years with the Rockies. Only Harper has had a better offensive season then Alex Bregman's 2018. Four seasons to go before Bregman can hit the market, if he hasn't by then signed an Astros contract that could enable him to buy most of his hometown of Albuquerque.

Decisions, decisions

The Texans have until Tuesday to use the franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney and keep him off the free agent market. He's gotten better doing so less than in the past, but Bill O'Brien this week chose to utter crappola in saying the Texans haven't reached a decision yet. Unless they reach a long term contract agreement before Tuesday 3 p.m. Central Time, of course the Texans will tag Clowney. They'd be football morons not to do so. Texans' brass certainly has never proven itself football geniuses, but they're not morons.

Catching back on

How about Jason Witten leaving the Monday Night Football booth after one season to return to the Cowboys? When the season rolls around Witten will be 37 years old. Over his last two or three seasons Witten was down to pretty much a possession receiver. He didn't even average nine yards per catch in 2017. But if Witten has what he had then, he can still help Dak Prescott and the Cowboys's offense some. I feel confident the MNF chair won't be kept warm for Witten in his absence.

Not so Smart?

Think about this: To coach UT hoops, Shaka Smart gets paid more than double what Kelvin Sampson pulls down at UH. Seems beyond ridiculous now but the explanation is simple. Smart was a very hot ticket after his VCU run to the 2011 Final Four in Houston. Smart stayed at VCU another four years before deciding the Longhorn job and oodles of Longhorn cash were too much to pass up. He wouldn't have considered the UH gig for more than milliseconds. Sampson had done good work as an NBA assistant while serving out what was basically a five year banishment from the college game. He did not have big time programs lined up to hire him.

Funny how life goes sometimes. A general reflection of their current job performances was evidenced Wednesday. Kelvin's Coogs dismantled awful East Carolina while Shaka's Horns gagged away a 17 point lead in the last 8:40 of regulation and wound up losing in overtime at Baylor.

Shaka Smart seems like a genuinely good person, but his record with the Longhorns is 65-63. Over the last 365 days Sampson's Cougars are 31-3. As Astros' beat writer and ardent UH fan Brian McTaggart noted to me this week, the three losses have come by one point to Cincinnati in last season's AAC Tournament championship game, the one point heartbreaker to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, and this season's one blemish, the four point loss at Temple.

Saturday vs. Central Florida at the Fertitta Center isn't a total gimme, but there is no core reason to believe UH won't emerge at 28-1 for the season.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. So who bats cleanup for the Astros vs. right handed pitching, Michael Brantley or Carlos Correa? 2. Robert Kraft. I mean, seriously? 3. Best Italian restaurant desserts: Bronze-Italian Cream Cake Silver-Tiramisu Gold-Cassata Cake

Astros take game one of three against Rangers

Astros daily report presented by APG&E: Astros 7, Rangers 2

Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

After having their winning streak snapped on Wednesday night, the Astros had a day off to regroup before starting the weekend series with the Rangers in Arlington. Here's how Friday night's game went:

Final Score: Astros 7, Rangers 2

Record: 13-6, first in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Justin Verlander (3-0).

Losing pitcher: Drew Smyly (0-2).

Star of the game: Though there was plenty of offense to go around for the Astros, Justin Verlander delivered a great performance on the mound, allowing just one run on three hits and three walks to go along with his eight strikeouts over his seven innings and 107 pitches. The win moved him to 3-0 on the year.

Notes: After being held to one run on Wednesday night in Oakland, the Astros were on fire to start the game on Friday, getting a leadoff double from George Springer to set up Jose Altuve for a two-run homer, followed by Alex Bregman who made it back-to-back jacks to put Houston ahead 3-0 before Drew Smyly could record an out. Altuve struck again in the next inning, getting a two-out RBI-single to extend the lead to 4-0. That score held until the top of the fifth when Michael Brantley led the inning off with a double before Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit back-to-back RBI-doubles, then later George Springer hit what looked to be a home run but was instead ruled the third RBI-double of the inning, extending Houston's lead to 7-0. After being held scoreless through the first five innings, the Rangers did finally get on the board in the bottom of the sixth on a solo home run off of Justin Verlander, but Verlander would still go on to post a great line with his seven innings pitched. Chris Devenski took over in the eighth, getting a quick scoreless inning before Reymin Guduan came in for the ninth. Guduan allowed a towering one-out solo home run to the Rangers then walked the next batter, ending his appearance to bring in Josh James who was able to notch the last two outs to wrap up the win.

Up Next: The second of three games in this series will get underway at 7:05 PM on Saturday night. Houston will send Gerrit Cole (1-2, 3.24 ERA) to the mound to face Adrian Sampson (0-1, 5.93 ERA) for the Rangers.

The Astros daily report is presented by APG&E.

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