Houston is 3-1 but the future is uncertain

Here's where the Astros stand after the first series of 2020

The Astros are 3-1, but are down Justin Verlander. Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The first five days of the 2020 MLB regular season has been anything but ordinary, or uneventful. From the first game between the Yankees and Nationals going final after six innings due to rain to the empty stadiums slowly getting filled with cardboard cutouts of fans, this year's baseball is not what anyone expected to be watching at the beginning of this year.

The Astros find themselves navigating these uncharted waters, and now have four games under their belt after completing the four-game set with the Mariners at Minute Maid Park. They were able to take the series 3-1 and outscored Seattle 29-16 over that span.

You can't replace Verlander, but don't count the Astros out

The season started, in terms of starting lineup, as expected on Friday, with the potent offense starring George Springer, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman slotted 1-3 in the order, and Houston's ace, Justin Verlander on the mound. Though he allowed a couple of early runs, Verlander looked mostly sharp on his way to his first win of the early season.

Unfortunately, everything must not have been fine for Verlander, who would be part of a sport-wide shocking announcement on Sunday that he was going to miss time with a forearm injury. Although the initial reports varied in terms of length, from a few weeks to the whole season, Verlander's missed time will undoubtedly have a significant impact on this Astros team.

The rotation was already somewhat shaky beyond the top three, with Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Lance McCullers Jr. being followed by Josh James, who had a rough start on Monday against the Mariners, in the fourth spot and the fifth spot currently filled with Framber Valdez. Valdez will start on Tuesday in the opener of the quick two-game set. He had nearly an even split in 2019 between filling in as a starter and coming out of the bullpen. As a reliever, he had an ERA of 4.63 with 29 strikeouts and 21 walks over 35 innings. As a starter, he recorded 35.2 innings with an ERA of 7.07, 39 strikeouts, and 23 walks.

Dusty Baker and the Astros have not yet named who will start in Verlander's place on Wednesday against the Dodgers. The pressure will be on Houston's young arms, who will likely have to provide a lot more innings this year than initially expected. Fortunately, many of the new faces on the mound for the Astros looked effective over the first four games. Here is a quick recap of how some of the debuting pitchers did this weekend:

  • Blake Taylor: 2.1 IP, 0 H, 0 ER, 2 K
  • Enoli Paredes: 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 K
  • Cristian Javier: 1.0 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 1 K
  • Brandon Bielak: 3.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 4K

So while we'll wait and see who starts Wednesday, it could be that one of these arms needs to go just a few innings before making way for several others to finish the game, bullpen-style.

Potential reinforcements on the way

It's not all bad news, either. After a time of mystery surrounding when Yordan Alvarez and Jose Urquidy would be available, both have reported to Corpus Christi to start ramping up activities with the alternate squad. The change means that the already potent lineup will get another dose of power in Alvarez, while Urquidy will help bring in more talent to the pitching staff. Urduidy, though, will likely need some time to ramp up, while Alvarez could join the team relatively soon.

Another notable arm currently waiting for the call in Corpus Christi is Forrest Whitley. While the logical move would be to bring your best pitching prospect up after losing your veteran ace, the reality is it's just not that easy of a decision, for several reasons that Charlie Pallilo does an excellent job of explaining.

Even further, the Astros showed on Monday that even if their starter falters, the offense is more than capable of compensating and still winning games. Sure, you can't expect them to do that for each of Verlander's remaining starts of 2020 if who replaces him struggles each time, but by no means does this put the Astros out of contention.

The road ahead

Looking at the schedule ahead, the Astros will, as mentioned, have a tough matchup with the Dodgers on Tuesday and Wednesday, then take their first trip on the road, starting with a trip to Los Angeles to face the Angels who have gotten out to a slow 1-3 start. They'll stay on the road for two more series, three-game sets against the 1-3 Diamondbacks in Arizona and the 3-1 A's in Oakland.

So while they face a tough test with the Dodgers, the upcoming schedule can be navigated, even without their best pitcher, to come out with a strong record intact. Furthermore, it's important to keep in mind that the expanded playoffs could not have come at a better time for the Astros, who could falter without Verlander and still have a favorable chance to make the 16-team playoffs.

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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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