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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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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