Shrug it off and move on to Oakland

There's simply no time to panic for the Astros

Photo by Will Newton/ Getty Images

After going down to the wire the with the Angels last weekend and coming away with the series win, the Astros went into Monday's off-day sitting 5-4. That had them tied with Oakland atop the AL West division standings. In front of them stood a three-game series with the struggling 3-7 Diamondbacks, a series that the Astros teams of the last three years would have handily won, if not swept.

It looked like it would be one of those types of series after Tuesday's game, with the Astros beating up on Madison Bumgarner and winning the opener 8-2. Even three innings into Wednesday's game, where Houston had jumped ahead 4-0 and had Lance McCullers Jr. dealing on the mound, things felt (almost) comfortable. Then, the roof to Chase Field opened, and the air in Houston's sails was gone.

Collapse in the desert

In what seemed like a flash but also an inning that would never end, the Diamondbacks racked up nine runs to erase their four-run deficit and go up by five runs. Though the Astros would fight back along the way, it seemed like Arizona had the answers to knock Houston right back down into the dirt.

By the end of the night, a 14-7 loss had tied the series and put them 2.5 games behind the A's who were able to beat the Rangers to extend their winning streak to five games. Still, bad games come and go, so the Astros looked to rookie Brandon Bielak to provide a spark to get them back on track Thursday night in the series finale. Bielak did his part exceptionally well, providing five scoreless innings to put himself in line for his first win as a starter. Unfortunately, he'd watch from the dugout as his bullpen would relinquish the lead and his win. Then, later after Alex Bregman had come through with a go-ahead home run, he'd watch as Ryan Pressly would struggle in his second appearance of 2020 and give up the walk-off hit to Arizona to hand Houston the series loss.

Oakland awaits

Meanwhile, Oakland completed their sweep of the Rangers at home, moving their streak to six games and maintaining their 2.5 game advantage in the division. The performances so far this week would indicate that momentum favors Oakland going into the opener on Friday. With a sweep on either side, drastic changes to the AL West standings could be in store this weekend.

In both the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the A's finished second in the division to the Astros despite ending with a 97-65 record both years. Throw into the mix it was their teammate Mike Fiers who blew the whistle on the Astros sign-stealing, and the uncertainty of what their outcomes could have been in recent years, and there is inevitably a chip on Oakland's shoulder. Blood could be in the water for the A's to sniff out; however, it would be foolish to count the Astros out.

There's simply no time to panic

In my opinion, it's not a matter of IF those should be worried about the Astros, but rather a question of when would they have time to do so? This season is so compressed that each game bears much more weight than in a typical 162-game grind. A 60-game schedule means that it could be harder to observe and get caught up with long-term trends, which is a potential benefit for the Astros after their recent shortcomings. Instead, the focus is on going out and winning the game in front of you today, which is how the Astros can overcome Oakland and get back on track.

Sure, the A's have the momentum going into Friday, but you put these two teams into a one-game showdown, and you have to like Houston's chances. After going 3-for-4 on Thursday, coming just a triple shy of the cycle, it looked like Jose Altuve had shrugged off his early-season struggles and may have found his reliable swing again. Carlos Correa had an incredible series, going 6-for-11 in the three-game span, including a homer and was showing off his defensive prowess in the infield. In total, the Astros scored 19 runs in the series, proving that offense is not their issue.

The pitching staff needs to get their bearings

With the bats doing their parts to score runs and take or re-gain leads, Houston's pitching has been arguable the most volatile part of recent games. Yes, the Astros are without Justin Verlander and have a bullpen chock full of rookies, but there are few teams in the league right now that can currently say they have their pitching staff at 100%, either. There have definitely been bright spots among some of the younger arms, two of which are in the starting pitching matchups in Oakland this weekend:

  • Friday: HOU - Zack Greinke (0-0, 5.00 ERA) vs OAK - Chris Bassitt (1-0, 0.93 ERA)
  • Saturday: HOU - Framber Valdez (0-1, 2.53 ERA) vs OAK - Frankie Montas (1-1, 2.25 ERA)
  • Sunday: HOU - Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.42 ERA) vs OAK - Jesus Luzardo (0-0, 2.32 ERA)

Though Valdez has had ups and downs, he was incredibly impressive in his most recent appearance, where he came in for 6.1 innings out of the bullpen to help Houston overcome just three innings from their starter that day, Josh James. Whether or not that translates to a successful start, where he has been hit-or-miss in his career, will be seen on Saturday. Javier, though, will be making his fourth major-league appearance, and third start, on Sunday.

In his debut year, Javier has been fantastic, including a 5.2 inning, one-run start against the potent Dodgers, followed by six innings of one-run ball against the Diamondbacks. Over those two games, he's walked just two batters while striking out ten. If these three starting pitchers have their A-game against Oakland, and Houston's offense can keep scoring runs, then that will leave it up to the bullpen to do their job. But, that's been easier said than done.

As mentioned, the bullpen has been taken over by minor-league players getting their chance on the major-league team due to injuries and free-agent losses in the off-season. The one familiar face out there, Ryan Pressly, has a horrible 40.50 ERA after going 0.2 innings while allowing a run against the Angels this past weekend, then giving up the tying and winning runs on the walk-off in Arizona in the bottom of the ninth on Thursday, without recording an out.

Maybe Pressly needs time to re-adjust, and he gets back into mid-season form. Maybe Josh James' transition to the bullpen provides a spark. Maybe the Astros get Brad Peacock and Jose Urquidy back, and that shifts arms around for the better. Maybe Houston gets several long outings from starters to give these rookies a breather to better ramp-up to major-league opponents. Maybe Justin Verlander's injury isn't season-ending, and he comes back to save the day. To me, that's more "maybes" than I would feel comfortable with in a shortened season.

Yet, the Astros still find themselves in the AL West, a very winnable division if they can get and stay in front of the A's for the third-straight year. Also, they do have the looming return of Yordan Alvarez to strengthen their lineup further. So again, while the series in Arizona may have left a bad taste in their mouth, Houston should take it game by game, knowing that they still have the pieces to be one of the best teams, if they can find out how to organize those pieces into the winning formula.

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Urquidy should get the nod over McCullers. Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

After being basically overmatched in their season opening loss at Kansas City, the Texans try it this week against the other team vastly superior to them in the AFC last season with the Baltimore Ravens at fan-less NRG Stadium Sunday. They met last year with the Ravens humiliating the Texans 41-7 in Baltimore.

The Chiefs are a tough measuring stick, but the Texans didn't measure up in any area. Meanwhile, in their opener last Sunday the Ravens bashed the Browns 38-6 with reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson completing 20 of 25 passes with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Jackson ran only seven times, last time he had fewer carries was the season opener last season. On paper there is little reason to think the Texans win. They have no position unit advantage with the possible exception of wide receiver, but given the puny outputs of Brandin Cooks, Randall Cobb, and Kenny Stills in Kansas City let's see them have a good game before giving them any checkmarks over opponents. The Ravens are seven point favorites.

The playoffs are in sight for the Astros

The Astros continue to slog (slog, not slug) their way to the postseason. Entering the weekend with just 10 games left in this truncated regular season they sit as a paragon of mediocrity: 25 wins and 25 losses. That has about clinched a playoff spot though since in the gimmicky short season postseason format the Astros are a virtual lock to qualify by finishing second in the American League West. They are three games ahead of Seattle. If somehow they wind up tied there is no one game playoff, and the Astros have already clinched the tiebreaker over the Mariners. The Astros play only lousy teams to close. Three this weekend vs. the Diamondbacks, then three to try to polish off the Mariners in Seattle, then four in Arlington at the Rangers.

The Astros' bullpen will be stronger in the playoffs

The Astros' lousy bullpen has been a big weakness in the 60 game schedule and would have been a bigger problem over a 162 game schedule. In the playoffs, that weakness could be greatly diminished. In the opening round best of three Zack Greinke is sure to start one of the first two games. If Justin Verlander makes it back to start the other, that leaves just one starting spot left for Dusty Baker to decide likely between Jose Urquidy and Lance McCullers. That would add Framber Valdez and Christian Javier to the Astros' pen.

Since the Astros will have no playoff games at Minute Maid Park, Urquidy (with two more decent starts) should get the nod over McCullers. It is bizarre that McCullers has been so regularly outstanding at MMP while so often inept elsewhere. In five home starts this season McCullers has a 1.42 earned run average. In four road starts his ERA is 13.50. It's not just a short season small sample size thing. For his career McCullers has 44 home starts, ERA 2.51. 45 road starts (plus three relief appearances), ERA 5.22. It's not as if MMP is a great pitchers' park.

Timing is running out for the Rockets

The Rockets turned out to be irrelevant as real NBA championship contenders go. The Lakers are excellent so there is no shame in losing to them, but the Rockets getting destroyed in the fourth quarter of two games and then not even being competitive in the closeout game made a complete mockery of General Manager Daryl Morey's "we should win this thing" claim. With one of the oldest starting lineups in the NBA the Rockets' future is perilous. Head Coach Mike D'Antoni opting to not be part of it in telling the organization goodbye without even waiting on a new contract offer. If for the third consecutive offseason the Rockets make personnel moves on the cheap, they are not to be taken seriously as a title threat in 2020-21.

The Denver Nuggets should give the Lakers a better series than did the Rockets. That in and of itself isn't saying much, but the Nuggets are younger, deeper, and more versatile than the Rockets.

Last season Kyle Lowry played stellar point guard in helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA championship. This season Goran Dragic is playing stellar point guard in helping the Miami Heat to within two wins of playing for the NBA championship. Once upon a time the Rockets had Lowry and Dragic on their roster at the same time. The Rockets are at 25 seasons and counting since last playing in the NBA Finals.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Maybe a postseason revival is to come, but Jose Altuve has never so regularly looked so messed up at the plate. His batting average down to .216, Altuve has been by far the worst Astro regular in 2020.

2. Other than at the Masters it looks like it will be a major surprise (and event) if Tiger Woods seriously contends to win another major.

3. Best doodles: Bronze-Yankee Silver-Snicker Gold-Golden

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