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.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

Houston drops the opener

Angels use big sixth inning to take opener from Astros

Houston's offense started hot, then went cold Monday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

With a 2-1 series win under their belt to start this ten-game homestand, the Astros turned the page to a three-game set with the Angels on Monday night. Things started strong for Houston, building an early lead, but it would erode in the middle innings as the Angels would respond with a big sixth inning to take the opener.

Final Score: Angels 5, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 18-17, tied for second in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jose Suarez (1-0)

Losing Pitcher: Brandon Bielak (1-2)

Houston Builds an early lead

After a 1-2-3 top of the first by Luis Garcia, Houston would start the scoring in the bottom of the inning. Back-to-back walks set things off, setting up an RBI ground-rule double by Alex Bregman, giving them the 1-0 lead. Kyle Tucker lead the bottom of the second off with a double, then came around to score on an RBI single by Myles Straw, then Michael Brantley made it 3-0 with an RBI double later in the inning.

Los Angeles roars back to take the lead

Los Angeles trimmed the lead to two runs in the top of the fourth with an RBI double, but Houston was able to get that run back on another RBI by Straw in the bottom of the fifth. Things fell apart for Garcia in the top of the sixth, with back-to-back one-out solo homers trimming the lead to one run and ending his night there: 5.1 IP, 5 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 7 K, 2 HR, 92 P.

The Angels didn't stop there, getting two more runs to take the lead off of Brandon Bielak, who managed just one out while blowing the lead. Brooks Raley would enter to get the final out of the inning, then tried to keep the deficit at one run when he returned in the top of the seventh. It looked like things might unravel for him, allowing the first two batters to reach base on a walk and single, but he would battle back to strike out the next three straight to strand both.

Angels take the opener

Joe Smith took over in the top of the eighth, still 5-4, but would get two outs while allowing a double in his three batters before Houston moved on to Kent Emanuel, who finished the inning off. After another scoreless inning for Houston's offense, Emanuel remained in the game in the top of the ninth to keep a walk-off chance alive, and he would do so by erasing a walk to send the one-run game to the bottom half. The Astros wouldn't pull off a comeback, though, dropping the opener to Los Angeles.

Up Next: The middle game of this series will be another 7:10 PM Central start on Tuesday night. It shapes up to be an exciting pitching matchup, with Lance McCullers Jr. (2-1, 3.58 ERA) for Houston going up against the two-way star Shohei Ohtani (1-0, 2.41 ERA) for Los Angeles.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome