CHAMPIONSHIP DNA?

Why fans may have witnessed the most pivotal day in Houston sports history

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Houston sports fans may look back at Tuesday, Aug. 18 as the day the Astros became legit pennant contenders, and the Rockets took their first serious step toward the 2020 NBA title.

The Astros beat the Colorado Rockies, 2-1, in extra innings, and the Rockets unleashed a wire-to-wire beatdown on the OKC Thunder, 123-108, to take Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

Sure, call me a bigger homer than that hack who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, but don't be surprised if we have two socially distanced parades around the corner in downtown Houston.

So far, the NBA playoffs have been a showcase for big-time superstar scorers, like Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell and … our guy James Harden.

Who has the edge? Listen to Charles Barkley: "James Harden is the best one-on-one player I may have ever seen in my life." And Barkley has seen Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, all the legends. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said it last year: "You can argue for him (Harden) as the best offensive player of all-time."

Harden poured in 37 points Tuesday to lead the Rockets to a statement win over the OKC Thunder. Yeah, there are games when he has more turnovers than Three Brothers Bakery, and more missus than Larry King, but when he's on, nobody tops Harden. Don't forget, this scoring machine led the NBA in assists in 2016-17. He's averaged more than seven assists a game the past six seasons.

Things will only get better when Harden's superstar running mate Russell Westbrook returns from a quad injury. Eric Gordon already is back in form. Add in Danuel House, Robert Covington, Jeff Green, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers, and the Rockets simply are too fast and have too much firepower for an opponent to handle.

Tuesday, the Rockets overwhelmed the Thunder, led 68-52 at halftime and didn't let the Thunder get within single digits the rest of the game. The Rockets were scary good.

Earlier that day, and just as important, the Astros won a game they would have blown two weeks ago. Starter Zack Greinke was magnificent, tossing eight innings of shutout ball. Light-hitting Myles Straw lined a bases-loaded walk-off single in the 10th for the 2-1 Astros win. It was their fourth consecutive one-run victory. That's what champions do, win close games.

It's not just how the Astros are winning, it's with whom they're doing it. Monday, six of the nine hitters in the Astros batting order were hitting .200 or below: George Springer, Abraham Toro, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Dustin Garneau, and Straw. The starting pitcher was rookie Brandon Bielak. Somehow they beat the Rockies, by the same 2-1 score.

Justin Verlander, George Springer (here we go again), Roberto Osuna, Yordan Alvarez, Brad Peacock, Aledmys Diaz, Michael Brantley, and Chris Devenski are on the infirmary list. Joe Smith has an excused absence for the season, but Osuna and Alvarez likely won't return this year.

Yet here they are, with a 13-10 record, riding a six-game winning streak, firmly in second place in the American League West. By this time next week, half the season will be over, that's weird, and the Astros are in the thick of the playoff picture.

Think back to last year, when the Astros won 107 games and the American League pennant. The Astros began the 2019 season with a pitching rotation of eventual Cy Young Award winner Verlander (21-6), Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole (20-5), lefty Wade Miley (14-6), and righty Peacock (7-6). Between them, they started 115 games for the American League champion Astros. That's a pennant-winning staff.

This year, all gone: Verlander is 1-0, on the injured list. Cole is 4-0, but for the New York Yankees. Miley is 0-2 with a 16.20 earned run average for the Cincinnati Reds. Peacock is nursing a shoulder injury and hasn't pitched this season.

In 2020, the Astros are relying on pitchers Greinke and the return of Lance McCullers. After that, it's not a who's who, it's just a "who?" The Astros are throwing pitchers wearing uniform No. 59 (Framber Valdez), No. 60 (Enoli Paredes), No. 53 (Cristian Javier), No. 70 (Andre Scrubb), No. 67 (Cy Sneed), No. 64 (Brandon Bielak), No. 72 (Humberto Castellanos) and No. 66 (Bryan Abreu).

That isn't a pitching staff. That's the Houston Texans offensive line. Still, right now, I wouldn't bet against Houston – the Astros or the Rockets.

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Correa could be on his way out. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Editor's note: Ken Rosenthal updated his column on Tuesday afternoon.


It has not been the best of times to be a star athlete in Houston. In the last year, Jadeveon Clowney and DeAndre Hopkins were solid off for a warm bucket of spit. George Springer won't be back. James Harden and Russell Westbrook rumors are rampant. J.J. Watt might be moving on as well.

Now, reports are the Astros are listening to offers for Carlos Correa.

Predictably, Astros fans are livid. And if it's true, they should be concerned about the bigger picture.

Trading Correa makes sense - if you have no plans on keeping him after next season, as was clearly the case with Springer. If the Astros can get a haul and replenish the farm system, it would be the right move, especially considering Correa's injury history.

But in the long run, it does not bode well for the direction of the team. All recent indications are that the Astros are going cheap.

They would still be a competitive team without Correa, but it would be yet another indication their World Series window has closed. Alex Bregman could slide over to shortstop, but who would play third? And they only have one starting outfielder on the roster as it is. Putting together a competitive lineup around Bregman, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez would still be possible, but if the Astros aren't going to spend money, that could be problematic.

The writing was probably on the wall when the team hired James Click as GM from the notoriously frugal Tampa Bay organization. The good news is the Rays have been successful. But this is a new direction for a team that was not afraid to spend big money to make runs at the World Series.

If they lose Correa, they lose a team leader, one of the few players who embraced the villain role in the wake of the cheating controversy and was not afraid to speak out. But he has never lived up to his MVP potential, has battled injuries and will command big dollars on the open market. He is still young enough to become that kind of player, and someone will gamble big money that he will.

Sadly, if this rumor is true, it won't be the Astros.

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