CHAMPIONSHIP DNA?

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

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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The Astros rotation looks like a strength moving forward. Composite Getty Image.

The Houston Astros are coming off a much-needed series win over the White Sox, but have a quick turnaround as they host the Orioles on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

The 'Stros dropped the first game of the series with Framber Valdez on the mound, but were able to rebound with Hunter Brown and Spencer Arrighetti starting the final two games.

Brown was brilliant once again, and Arrighetti bounced back after a disastrous start against the Tigers over the weekend. Despite all the injures to the Astros staff this season, their young pitchers are stepping up when they need them the most.

Brown has six consecutive quality starts and is beginning to show signs that he can be the top of the rotation pitcher the club always hoped he could develop into.

Arrighetti has stepped in and shown that he belongs in the big leagues, and has provided innings Houston desperately requires with so many pitchers on the injured list.

Speaking of which, with Justin Verlander on the IL, Double A prospect Jake Bloss will make the start for Houston on Friday night. Bloss has quickly progressed through the farm system, having been drafted just a year ago.

We'll see how he performs in his MLB debut, but the club seems to have a lot of quality pitching options moving forward, especially with Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers scheduled to return in late July and early August respectively.

And as we look at the Astros rotation moving forward, perhaps they will go back to a six-man rotation during certain stretches in the second half of the season.

Which could prove to be vital to the team's success. As good as Ronel Blanco has been, he's never pitched as many innings as he'll be asked to pitch this year. Same goes for Arrighetti. And let's face it, sending Verlander out to pitch on four days rest consistently at 41 years old doesn't sound like a wise decision. He's already been on the IL twice this year.

While some see Garcia and McCullers as wild cards to help the team this season, Astros GM Dana Brown doesn't see it that way. He told the Astros flagship station this week that he's counting on those guys to make big contributions when they return. And he's counting on their postseason experience should they get there.

Keep in mind, Garcia has a 3.61 career ERA and has been durable outside the Tommy John surgery. And McCullers has always been good, it's just the health that causes concern.

Garcia is also an example of how a player can skip Double A and Triple A and have success right away in the big leagues. Hopefully, Bloss can follow in his footsteps, since he's bypassing Triple A to make his first start.

So what's the short and long-term outlook for the Astros rotation? And should we expect Verlander to return in 2025?

Be sure to watch the video above as we address those questions and much more!

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