THE PALLILOG

Sports return in less than two weeks, and Justin Verlander looks great

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As sports fans we're in the midst of a big game of "hold your breath." We're less than two weeks from the start of a truncated Major League Baseball season, inside three weeks from the resumption of a trimmed down NBA season, and as this posts two months to the day from the scheduled start of the NFL regular season. They'll all likely get going. College football, shakier. What is the likelihood of successful finishes? Major League Soccer resumed play this week in a so-called bubble in Orlando, and already two teams have been eliminated before ever playing because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests. In the spirit of hope let's address the locals preparing for play.

Not saying I'm desperate for MLB (yes I am!), but with no sound via the Astros' Twitter feed I watched about three innings of the Astros Thursday intrasquad scrimmage, their first scrimmage since regathering at Minute Maid Park. Worked for me. While Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, and George Springer (twice) might disagree, it was great to watch Justin Verlander strike out all of them. With no coronavirus Verlander would have missed the first two months of the season recovering from injuries. A healthy Verlander for the full 60 game sprint season obviously greatly enhances the Astros' chances of getting back to the postseason, regardless of how anyone values the season.

You can watch the highlights from Verlander's performance below.

How the 2020 MLB season plays out is a very open question. Nevertheless, having to plan ahead MLB Thursday released the 2021 regular season schedule. Opening Day, April Fool's Day! The Astros are slated to be in Oakland.

Rocket launch

The Rockets settle at Disney World for a second training camp ahead of starting the eight game finish to the regular season. General Manager Daryl Morey has asserted that the Rockets "should win this thing," this thing being the NBA championship. As assertions go that is ridiculous. They certainly belong in the second tier of contenders behind the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers. That does not translate to "should win this thing." Given the variables of top seeds no longer having homecourt advantage, players choosing to not play because of COVID concerns, players who get sidelined by COVID, and the Rockets having a good team, of course they have a shot. That is much different from "should win this thing." Getting a look at "Slim Jim" Harden will be interesting. He's reportedly trimmed down 15 to 20 pounds. How will Harden's game be impacted at each end of the court?

Big deal coming for Deshaun?

The Texans are slated to gather for training camp in a couple weeks to begin the run up to their season opener at Kansas City. The talk of the NFL this week was Chiefs' quarterback Patrick Mahomes getting about 140 million dollars guaranteed as part of his whopping 10 year 450 million dollar contract extension. Among those delighted for Mahomes is Texans' quarterback Deshaun Watson. Mahomes was the 10th pick in the 2017 draft, Watson went two selections later. Mahomes has obviously been much better in his two seasons as a starter winning an NFL Most Valuable Player Award and the following season leading KC to its first Super Bowl win in 50 years. Still, the Mahomes deal sets some parameters for what Watson can command from the Texans.

There has been scuttlebutt about Watson preferring a shorter term extension. If so that would clearly indicate uncertainty about believing in the long term potential for consistent legitimate Super Bowl contention for the franchise. That's reasonable since the Texans have never been a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Watson is under contract for this coming season and 2021. If necessary the Texans could then easily use the franchise tag on him for the 2022 and 2023 seasons, but hammering out an extension makes sense for both parties. Even though no deal would not mean Watson could leave any time soon, it would be a bad look for the Texans. Watson has avoided calamitous injuries the last two seasons but given his ACL history securing generational wealth in one form or another makes sense. So, there are two positive viable outcomes. In a shorter extension Watson would have to get basically all the money guaranteed, say, three years 115 million dollars. Or in a longer extension even more money guaranteed at a sub-Mahomes level, say, 7 years 275 million? Teams should not be compelled to match questionable to stupid deals other teams commit to, but in Watson's case there would seem no way he takes less than the nearly 108 million guaranteed dollars the Eagles gave Carson Wentz in his extension or the 110 million the Rams laughably lavished upon Jared Goff.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. How come hand sanitizer is now easily found, but not wipes?

2. UFC "Fight Island" seems impressively constructed, I'm just not into it.

3. Biggest losses if non-conference college football games are wiped out for 2020: Bronze-Ohio St. at Oregon Silver-Clemson at Notre Dame Gold-Texas at LSU

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With the disappointing loss in extra innings late the night before, the Astros returned to RingCentral Coliseum on Saturday afternoon to try and even the series against the A's, who now owned a 3.5 game lead in the AL West over Houston. Here is a quick rundown of the middle game of the series:

Final Score: A's 3, Astros 1.

Record: 6-8, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Frankie Montas (2-1, 1.57 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Framber Valdez (0-2, 2.04 ERA).

Valdez does his job

Framber Valdez ran into stress early on Saturday, facing trouble in the bottom of the first inning. It started with a leadoff solo home run, putting Oakland up 1-0 before they would record an out. He later allowed back-to-back one-out singles to rack up his pitch count in the frame but would limit the damage to the single run.

He was able to re-focus and settle in during the following innings, getting quick, scoreless innings in the next four. In the bottom of the sixth, a leadoff groundball that likely should have been the first out was instead a single that would come back to bite Houston. That runner stole second and advanced to third on a bad throw, then scored on an RBI-groundout, doubling Oakland's lead to 2-0. Valdez would go one more inning, giving Houston precisely what they needed by helping give their exhausted bullpen a break. His final line: 7.0 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K, 1 HR.

Houston's offense unable to get anything going

Unfortunately for Houston, Frankie Montas was even more efficient on the other side. Houston was only able to notch two hits against him over seven innings while Montas only had to throw 86 pitches over that span. Oakland would go to their bullpen in the top of the eighth, with the Astros getting just a single in the inning.

Nivaldo Rodriguez would take over for Valdez in the bottom of the eighth and allowed a solo home run to make it 3-0 before completing the inning. Houston would get a leadoff double by Kyle Tucker to start the top of the ninth, and he would come around to score on an RBI-single by Alex Bregman. That's as close as Houston would get, though, as Oakland would finish off the win to secure the series and extend Houston's losing streak to four games.

Up Next: The final game of this series and Houston's nine-game road trip will be on Sunday at 3:10 PM Central. Jesus Luzardo (0-0, 2.31 ERA) will make a start for the A's while Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.42 ERA) will look to continue his success in 2020 for the Astros.

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