Austin Elite gets narrow win

SaberCats show promise in pre-season loss

Courtesy photo

It was "Faith and Family" night at Constellation Field as the Houston SaberCats prepared to open up their 2019 season in front of hundreds of excited fans of all ages and creeds. While the atmosphere remained fun and engaging throughout the evening, it ultimately ended in a bit of disappointment for the home crowd, as the SaberCats fell to the Austin Elite 14-10.

The first half was a dream come true for fans of defensive rugby tactics, with each team making a number of goal line stands inside their own 5-meter to keep the score even at zero. Audible groans could be heard around the park as both squads came close to hitting pay dirt time and again, especially as Josua Vici (SaberCats) and Kyle Breytenbach (Elite) saw near tries slip away as each player found themselves just barely beyond the boundary of the touchline.

Meanwhile, inside the 22's is where fans got to see the fireworks happen. Scrumhalf Connor Murphy looked to distribute the ball early and often to his playmakers, giving opportunities to guys like Malachi Esdale, Olympic Gold-Medalist Osea Kolinisau, and the aforementioned Fijian-phenom known as Josua Vici.

While the swarming defense of Austin Coach Alain Hyardet continued to give Murphy all he could handle taking the ball out of the ruck, their firewall was eventually broken through around the nine-minute mark on a spectacular counter attack by the 'Cats, ultimately allowing Fullback Zach Pangelinan to go diving into the in-goal from 40+ meters out for the try. Sam Windsor would miss the ensuing conversion kick, sending Houston into the locker room at halftime with a 5-nil lead.

The second half came about with an increased sense of urgency from both sides to pull away from the other. Austin began to employ more high-risk passing phases, while the hits coming from the Houston defense got more and more physical. It was visible to fans on multiple occasions that tensions were running high amongst the players on the field.

With the help of a few Austin penalties, Houston was able to force its way deep into the Elite's territory, utilizing their signature "ground and pound" style of forward-oriented attacks, with Tight-Head Prop Charlie Connolly impressing many with his rugged style of play along the way. After a few exciting hits and some awe-inspiring displays of strength (don't skip leg day, kids), Alex Elkins was able to bully his way over the try line, drawing the first blood of the half and giving his team the 10-nil lead. A second conversion attempt by Windsor would go unsuccessful.

With their hopes of victory on the line, the Elite must have decided to take a page out of the SaberCats book, taking advantage of a few ill-timed penalties by the home team to put themselves in position inside the 22. Just as the 'Cats did to them minutes before, the Elite used their forwards to methodically gain ground, before a hard charging run from 'Big' Ben Mitchell put them on the board for the first time all game.

With the time remaining beginning to wane, each team began looking for that big splash play to put them over the top, with some crowd-rousing runs from either side seeming to fall just short every time. Austin was eventually able to find themselves inside the 'Cats 22 once again, but the home team were able to make a defensive stand that resulted in a turnover. Unfortunately, a box kick attempt by the 'Cats to clear it out was blocked, giving Elite reserve Aden McMullen the opportunity to scoop and score for the try, putting Austin ahead for the final time at 14-10.

Despite a last-minute attempt by the 'Cats to come away with the victory shortly after, the final whistle eventually blew on a penalty, ending the game in favor of the Elite.

While the final result may have been disappointing to those in attendance, there were still plenty of elements the 'Cats could walk away with while holding their heads up high. Mainly, their big play ability. This team has so many players, from Windsor to Trouville, to Vici and Esdale among many others who can give defenses hell all by themselves, and it certainly showed up on Friday night. And when they're in-sync with one another, it's an all-around nightmare.

Second was the physical nature of their defense inside the 22, which the arrival of new Defensive Coach Neil Kelly is sure to help improve even more. Austin's backs were able to work fast in the passing game, but more often than not they were left without an answer at the try-line door thanks to Houston's stout refusal to yield.

While the clouds may have briefly darkened the night over Constellation Field, the future is sure to be bright in Houston.

GAME STATS:

Houston SaberCats

Tries- Zach Pangelinan (1), Alex Elkins (1)

Conversions- Sam Windsor 0/2

Austin Elite

Tries: Ben Mitchell (1), Aden McMullen (1)

Conversions: Mitch Romera 2/2

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McCullers Jr. had nine strikeouts over four

McCullers Jr. looks sharp in tune-up before Rangers overpower Houston's bullpen

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite watching their chance to clinch their playoff spot on the field slip away in the walk-off loss on Friday, the Astros benefited from a loss by the Angels later in the night, securing their playoff berth. That meant they could play conservatively in the final two games of the season against the Rangers in Arlington. Here's a quick rundown of Saturday's matchup:

Final Score: Rangers 6, Astros 1.

Record: 29-30, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Jimmy Herget (1-0, 3.20 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Brandon Bielak (3-3, 6.75 ERA).

McCullers Jr. looks playoff-ready 

With nothing substantial to play for, the Astros did not expect to ask Lance McCullers Jr. to go deep into Saturday's game, instead giving him a few innings for a tune-up before assuming whatever role he would play in the post-season. He looked impressive, a promising sign after his injury stint and struggles on the road at points this season.

He finished four innings, during which he racked up a season-high nine strikeouts while giving up no runs on just two hits, both singles, and two walks. His final line: 4.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 9 K, 0 HR, 61 P.

Both teams trade runs as  they go to their bullpens

Meanwhile, neither team was getting much going at the plate in the early goings, keeping it a scoreless game through the first five. Brandon Bielak took over for McCullers Jr. starting in the fifth but would allow the first run of the night in the bottom of the sixth as the Rangers would get three singles to take a 1-0 lead.

After Kyle Gibson held the Astros at bay for six innings, Houston would get on the board against Texas' bullpen, getting a leadoff double by Aledmyz Diaz in the top of the seventh. Diaz moved to third on a sac bunt, then scored on a sac fly by Jack Mayfield, making it 1-1.

Rangers blow it open in the seventh

The tie didn't last long, as Bielak would put two on base in the bottom of the seventh before giving up a three-run homer to make it a 4-1 Rangers lead. Andre Scrubb was next out of Houston's bullpen and allowed a solo home run on his first pitch. Scrubb would complete the inning, but not before allowing another run on three singles to push Texas' lead to 6-1.

Cy Sneed was next out of Houston's bullpen for the bottom of the eighth and tossed a scoreless frame with two strikeouts. Houston would not make the unlikely comeback in the top of the ninth, with the Rangers taking the game 6-1.

Up Next: The last game of the Astros' 2020 regular season will be Sunday at 2:05 PM Central, as are most other games on the MLB slate on the league's final regular-season day. Houston's starter is TBD as they will continue to preserve their arms for the best-of-three first round that starts on Tuesday, while Texas will send Jordan Lyles (1-6, 7.08 ERA) to the mound.

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