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#pounditThursday, October 28, 2021

Stories by Grey Papke:

Astros get bad news on star player’s health for potential World Series

Lance McCullers delivers a pitch

The Houston Astros are well-positioned to return to the World Series. However, if they get there, they’ll likely have to take care of business without their ace.

Lance McCullers Jr., who has not pitched in the ALCS due to forearm discomfort, is still not throwing, according to manager Dusty Baker. That likely means he won’t be ready for the World Series if the Astros advance.

With the team needing one win from two home games to make the World Series, the Astros are favored to get there. Losing McCullers for that series would definitely be a big blow. The 28-year-old led Houston pitchers in pretty much every category, pacing the staff with a 3.16 ERA and 185 strikeouts.

Houston starters have had their share of struggles in the ALCS, though they turned it around in Games 4 and 5. The likes of Framber Valdez and Luis Garcia are going to have to step up, both to close out the ALCS and potentially in the World Series.

Photo: Oct 7, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. (43) throws a pitch against the Chicago White Sox during the first inning in game one of the 2021 ALDS at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Daryl Morey sends message about Ben Simmons trade timeline

Daryl Morey in a blazer

Philadelphia 76ers team president Daryl Morey made clear Thursday that he does not see the Ben Simmons saga ending anytime soon.

Morey appeared on 97.5 The Fanatic’s “The Mike Missanelli Show” and advised listeners to “buckle in,” as the 76ers were unwilling to trade Simmons for role players. Morey even alluded to Simmons’ contractual situation by saying it could be a four-year process.

To be clear, this isn’t likely to last four years. Morey is simply laying things out in public. It’s as much a negotiating ploy as anything else. The Sixers do not want to trade Simmons for spare parts. The hope may be that digging in publicly will show teams how serious they are about demanding stronger offers.

It certainly sounds like, in a perfect world, the 76ers would prefer to be done with Simmons themselves. Whether they get an offer they feel is worth pursuing remains to be seen.

Photo: Dec 22, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey looks on before a game between the Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

JJ Watt has blunt assessment of Texans

JJ Watt

J.J. Watt will face the Houston Texans for the first time since his release following the 2020 season this weekend. However, it does not sound likely to be a very emotional occasion for him.

Watt, now with the Arizona Cardinals, said Thursday that he’ll still be reminded of his accomplishments with the Texans when he sees them line up across from him. However, that’s where the emotion will end due to the high roster turnover.

“There’s obviously something more to it,” Watt said, via Josh Weinfuss of ESPN. “I don’t think that it’s what people may think it is because, I mean, you look at the roster and you look at the guys that are there, I mean it’s been so massively turned over that there’s only a handful of guys that are even there from last year that I played with.

“So, it’s not like, I’m like, ‘Oh, I want to go and beat my old team’ or ‘Oh, I can’t wait to face this guy,’ because it’s not the same team. It’s not the same organization that I remember and that I was a part of.”

That turnover is a big reason why Watt sought his release after the 2020 season. There was some foreshadowing of that, too. Nobody, not even Texans fans, is going to hold his decision against him.

Watt has gotten off to a slow start statistically with the Cardinals, though he did collect his first sack of the season last week against Cleveland.

Tua Tagovailoa rumors spin out of control amid Watson speculation

Tua Tagovailoa

As speculation increased about a potentially imminent Deshaun Watson trade, even wilder rumors began to spread about the future of Tua Tagovailoa.

A report on Wednesday indicated that the Houston Texans and Miami Dolphins are making progress on trade talks involving Watson. That cast doubt on Tagovailoa’s future in Miami and led to a flood of unsourced rumors about the Dolphins quarterback’s future.

Further complicating matters was a report from Aaron Wilson of SportsTalk 790 AM indicating that a third team was involved in trade talks that related to the Watson situation.

We do know of two prominent teams that Tagovailoa has been linked to but apparently aren’t involved. One of them is the Denver Broncos, who have no interest in Tagovailoa, according to Mike Klis of 9News.

Tagovailoa was also linked to the Washington Football Team, another organization without a long-term solution at quarterback. JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington, however, said he received a “hard no” from sources when asking if Washington had interest.

Where does that leave Tagovailoa? We don’t know, honestly. There’s no doubt that if Miami does bring Watson in, Tagovailoa’s long-term future in Miami is over. It may be that other teams just aren’t that interested. That’s hard to fathom given how much hype Tagovailoa had coming into the NFL, but when you see some of the plays he’s made during games, it just doesn’t look like he’s making much progress toward being a standout NFL quarterback.

Video: Red Sox fan makes catch of the year on flying broken bat

Red Sox fan with bat

Every so often you’ll see video of a lucky baseball fan making a quality catch on a home run or a foul ball into the seats. You almost never see it on a bat, but it happened Wednesday.

One Boston Red Sox fan turned what could have been a scary moment into a highlight during Game 5 of the ALCS on Wednesday afternoon. Boston’s Rafael Devers shattered his bat on a ground ball to first, and the barrel went flying into the crowd on the first base side.

Enter this fan, who made an incredible one-handed catch on the fly, much to the delight of the crowd.

The fan was understandably pumped, and even looked a bit surprised at himself.

This is almost a defensive action. The broken bat is sharp and can absolutely break skin, especially if it hits at the wrong angle. In fact, a broken bat going into the stands led to a very scary moment at Fenway Park several years ago. Not only did this guy make a great catch, he might have actually prevented an injury to himself or someone else.

Bob Huggins wants huge change that would end NCAA Tournament

Bob Huggins at the podium

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins thinks college basketball’s power conferences need to embrace a controversial but financially rewarding idea.

Speaking at Big 12 Media Day on Wednesday, Huggins advocated for the sport’s elite conferences to break away from the NCAA and form their own tournament in order to earn a greater share of the profits.

“They’re doing it in football,” Huggins said, via Myron Medcalf of ESPN. “Why wouldn’t they do it? The presidents and athletic directors that have all the juice, why wouldn’t they do it? Makes no sense why they wouldn’t do it. I think it’s more ‘Why wouldn’t they?’ than ‘Why would they?’ And then, the other people, they can have their own tournament.

“Those Cinderella schools are putting 200 people, at best, in their gym. We’re putting 14,000.”

If you’re a stakeholder with one of these programs, the idea makes sense. The NCAA has an $8.8 billion TV deal for March Madness, and a good portion of that does trickle down to conferences and schools. However, Huggins’ concern is that much of the basketball money ends up being spent on football programs due to college football’s greater reach and viewership. A breakaway tournament, at least in Huggins’ mind, would ensure greater financial relevance and a bigger share of the financial pie for the schools involved.

Fans, however, would take some convincing. A playoff was an easy sell in college football because of the unpopular BCS system. College basketball already has a system that lets smaller teams earn the chance to compete, and sometimes beat, bigger schools. Those games have produced some of the tournament’s most memorable moments. Taking that away would likely be hugely unpopular. After all, few people have major complaints with the existing format of the NCAA Tournament.

Photo: Oct 20, 2021; Kansas City, MO, USA; West Virginia coach Bob Huggins during the question and answer session during the Big 12 Basketball Tipoffat T-Mobile Center. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Bradley Beal has surprising take on future with Wizards

Bradley Beal

Much has been made about Bradley Beal’s uncertain future with the Washington Wizards. The star guard definitely sounds like he knows where he wants to be, though.

In a new feature by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer, Beal sounds like he’d prefer to stay with Washington despite the franchise’s recent struggles. The star guard can become a free agent after the season, but has received the superstar treatment from the Wizards. The team, particularly general manager Tommy Sheppard, has consulted with Beal on roster moves and style of play. So far, Beal is impressed.

“Shep played the hand he was dealt,” Beal said. “He had to clean up some things to shape it the way he wanted to and I’m definitely impressed with it. The way he made moves, he was able to save us without giving up crazy picks or assets to go get what we wanted.”

Not only that, but Beal has actively sought to recruit a star to play with him. He has talked about the “freshness” of the organization and has tried to talk Washington D.C. up as a big market.

In other words, Beal does not sound like a player desperate to get out of Washington. That is in line with some previous reporting, too. He seems to be waiting to sign a long-term deal to see what kind of progress the young Wizards make this season. That said, it may not be that much of a surprise if he does end up signing on.

MLB’s automatic strike zone trial has been a total disaster

Rob Manfred

Those who want to see Major League Baseball move to an automated strike zone might want to be careful what they wish for.

MLB has been testing the automatic strike zone during Arizona Fall League action, and Keith Law of The Athletic was able to observe one of the games. That game, between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, was called after seven and a half innings after both teams ran out of pitchers. The two teams issued a combined 22 walks, and those seven and a half innings took three hours.

There were other issues at play as well, to be fair. The game was also played with a strict pitch clock and a ban on defensive shifts. The pitch clock was also a significant issue, and it led to top prospect Spencer Torkelson being called out after facing two strikes in another game.

The big story is the automated strike zone, which Law reports simply isn’t good enough right now. One major reason for that is that the actual strike zone is much smaller than the one frequently called by human umpires, particularly on the inside and outside parts of the plate. That led to a lot of pitches just off the plate — potential strikes in a current MLB game — being consistently called balls.

Calls for robot umps are frequent on social media whenever an inconsistent strike zone pops up in an MLB game, which is admittedly fairly often. We’ve seen some very questionable calls in the playoffs this season, and there will no doubt be more. That said, as frustrating as those calls are, they may be preferable to what the automated umps are capable of right now.