First Pitch: 7:03 PM CT
Know Thine Enemy: The Crawfish Boxes
In any conversation about the Houston Astros, it’s as easy to bring up their sign-stealing scandal as it was to bring up 0-18 in Minnesota Twins context five days ago. Glad that’s over! I’m not going to do that here. Not because the players on those teams are beyond reproach—I won’t begrudge any fan the right to boo or even outright dislike them. Carlos Correa included.
No, the main reason is that I can’t imagine being a loyal fan of a team, achieving the ultimate prize, then having it devalued by scandal. How many conversations on a daily or weekly basis must Houstonians have defending themselves for “supporting cheaters”? Sometimes you want to just root, root, root for the home team. Call it being magnanimous or taking the high road (I’ll say hi to Dennis Green if I see him!), but I’m a bit weary of the “cheaters” narrative sticking to a team and not its players.
Despite Houston emerging from MLB’s 1962 expansion just a year after the Twins, the two franchises have rarely crossed paths. Francisco Liriano had a memorable mound duel with Roger Clemens in 2006 & Houston extended The Streak (RIP) to 18 in 2020—and that’s really about it. This is largely because Houston spent the majority of its baseball existence in the National League.
Initially known as the Colt .45’s—back when a ballclub could be named after a side-piece—Houston moved into the Astrodome in 1965 and were christened Astros. Like most expansion teams, they stunk: eight 90+ loss seasons and no playoff appearances from 1962-1979. In the 1980s, the magnificent pitching of Nolan Ryan, Joe Niekro, J.R. Richard, and Mike Scott propelled Houston to their first playoff dalliances, though never past the NLCS.
On the backs of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Moises Alou, Lance Berkman, and Billy Wagner from 1997-2004, the Astros made postseason play five times—four NLDS defeats (they kept drawing the Atlanta Braves) and one heartbreaking NLCS loss. The very next year Houston finally put it all together and made the World Series—only to be quickly swept away by the pitching dominance of the Chicago White Sox.
After fading in the late-00s, Jeff Luhnow took over the GM seat in 2011 and embarked on the most ambitious “tank” (intentional losing) job in MLB history: 106 and 107 loss seasons in ’11 & ’12 were followed by 111 in 2013—their first in the American League. A 70-92 campaign in ‘14 was cause for celebration!
For the most part, the down-to-the-studs rebuild worked: From 2017-2022, the Astros won two World Championships, lost two others, and twice made the ALCS. Think about that for a second—Houston has appeared in the ALCS every year since 2017. The core of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, & George Springer was the best in baseball—until, of course, the sign-stealing scandal came to light and tarnished it all (at very least the ’17 title).
That brings us to present, where the Astros went a solid—if unspectacular—90-72 and snuck past the Texas Rangers to take the AL West crown on the 2023 season’s final day. They were 5th in total runs scored (compared to the Twins at 10th) & 8th in team ERA (to the Twins’ 6th). Pretty even in the overall reckoning, and the head-to-head matchups follow suit: Minnesota won the season series 4-2—Kyle Farmer’s home opener walk-off most memorable—but only one game was decided by 5+ runs.
Today, Framber Valdez will ascend the Minute Maid Park mound—exactly the scenario Rocco’s bunch avoided in the WC round but can side-step no longer. Valdez is a superstar starter who plies his trade from the port side—often a bugaboo for MIN’s lineup. Fortunately, the offensive numbers versus lefties improved in August & September, so that and the Twins’ roster flexibility advantage provides hope!
Having Pablo Lopez back on the bump will certainly provide a boost after yesterday’s pitching struggles (mainly against Yordan Alvarez). Whether it was Opening Day, the AL Central clincher, or Game 1 of the postseason, Lopez has been this club’s stopper all year long—and that mojo has never been needed more than right now.
|Donovan Solano - 1B||Jose Altuve - 2B|
|Jorge Polanco - 2B||Alex Bregman - 3B|
|Royce Lewis - DH||Yordan Alvarez - LF|
|Carlos Correa - SS||Kyle Tucker - RF|
|Ryan Jeffers - C||Jose Abreu - 1B|
|Willi Castro - LF||Michael Brantley - DH|
|Kyle Farmer - 3B||Chas McCormick - CF|
|Max Kepler - RF||Jeremy Pena - SS|
|Michael Taylor - CF||Martin Maldonado - C|
|Pablo Lopez - RHP||Framber Valdez - LHP|