HOUSTON – How would you describe the last five months during this pandemic?
No sports teams to cover on a daily basis has certainly been one of the most challenging periods of my career of television, print, web and radio work. Deflating at times, and yet there were still so many stories to tell with all of our local athletes who were and still are dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. They still found ways to train and be on standby for when the bell rang to get the season going.
That time is now for Major League Baseball, and if you’re like me it can’t get here soon enough.
The Astros have had a wild offseason coming off of the World Series game seven loss to the Nationals followed by the cheating scandal in the months ahead. It carried into the beginning of spring training and the arrival of new GM James Click and of course new manager Dusty Baker.
As painful as it was for this club to lose A.J. Hinch when he was let go by owner Jim Crane, Crane had to make a smart choice and Baker was just the right fit to come in during this crisis and manage a team through that and a club that is deep in talent and one that again will be a World Series threat.
Baker arrived in West Palm Beach and was learning the roster and the players individually. It doesn’t happen overnight, but Baker caught up quickly and bonded with his new team. The respect was on both sides and then a few weeks into spring training with only a few games under their belt, things came to a halt when the coronavirus took over.
Fast forward a few months, and here we are finally ready to begin the 2020 season after two weeks of summer camp.
It was fast but the players came back to Minute Maid Park in great shape and now it’s time to PLAY BALL! Sixty games and a sprint to the finish line just to get to the playoffs.
Friday night, it all begins at MMP as the Astros hand the ball to Justin Verlander and open with the Seattle Mariners for a four-game series.
What will it take for the Dusty Baker-led Astros to take care of business and get back to the World Series? Let’s take a look at the top five keys to a successful run to October.
1. Patience for Dusty Baker
Baker has been like a kid in a candy store for months, ever since he was hired right before spring training began. He knew the challenges he would inherit and embraced what came with those. This team is talented and proven. Now, Baker just has to let them play and make the right decisions when needed. He’ll give some guys a few days off but during a 60-game season, they won’t have a lot of chances. Baker isn’t a rah-rah type of manager. He makes his point and expects execution. He’ll rely heavily on his coaching staff to guide him through the course of the season. Baker will also “mask up” so missing those toothpicks will be something he has to deal with.
2. Watch the superstars take over
Simply put, this roster is loaded once again as everybody is back except for a new catcher, and that should put a smile on Baker’s face. This isn’t his first rodeo in baseball. He knows the talent he has and it all starts with the likes of Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Carlos Correa. After those big four, there is an incredible supporting cast that will fill out the lineup. The unsung heroes from 2019 were guys also guys like Michael Brantley who is such a pure hitter along with the steady Yuli Gurriel and Josh Reddick. When all of these guys are locked in offensively, the Astros will be tough to beat. When Yordan Alvarez returns, then the lineup just gets stronger.
3. Starting pitching staff
This will be the area that will make or break the Astros this season. They know they will score runs but what they don’t know is how deep this rotation can be. It all starts with the reigning AL Cy Young winner in Justin Verlander, who starts opening night and again next Tuesday when he faces off against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. Verlander will deal and win and so will Zack Greinke. Lance McCullers Jr. will start game two Saturday after a terrific early spring camp and summer session as well. Lance is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery in 2018, and appears to be back to his old form. Then, after the big three, what will follow? Josh James, Framber Valdez or when healthy Brad Peacock? Big question with Jose Urquidy still out as well. They need a consistent fourth and occasional fifth starter.
4. Bullpen question mark
The good news is the return of Pressley and Devo is something Baker can count on. Missing will be the departed Will Harris who signed with the Nationals and middle reliever Joe Smith who has opted out of playing in this 60-game season for family reasons. Smith was outstanding last season and will be missed.
5. Keeping focused
That’s simple but true during any year and especially here in 2020 with the Astros. Coming off of the cheating scandal they remain the target of every team out there. Will they be thrown at in this shortened season? Absolutely they will, and saw three guys get plunked in the two games against the Royals. At least one of those could be attributed to the Royals just having pathetic pitchers with control problems. This criticism they have and will receive really will be a motivator for this group of Astros. They want nothing more than to win big and win it all and be the last team standing.
So, there you have it. Are you ready for some baseball now? It’s going to look and feel different every night at the ballpark, but we’ll all get used to it. It won’t take long because sports are finally back.