2017 Part One: Houston, We Have a Problem

If you predicted entering spring training that the Houston Astros would be a) the team to beat, and b) next to impossible to beat, they would have wrapped you in a straitjacket and sent you on a one-way trip to the Delta Quadrant. But when not rubbing its eyes over the Astros' 1986 Mets-like ownership of the game thus far, baseball spent the first half of 2017 wondering about certain rule changes actual or to be, wondering how to shorten games, whether the baseballs themselves were given shots of rocket fuel (total Show home runs in May and June: 2,161; or, one homer plus per game of Lou Gehrig's former consecutive-games played streak), and wondering whether the unwritten rules needed to be overthrown post haste.

Jose Bautista tested his market and flunked, making his way back to the Blue Jays for a year, $18 million, and a pair of options for the two years to follow that he shouldn't have trouble making assuming he stays healthy. (Teams in the 2016-2017 offseason sought more versatility than slugging.) Then, he proclaimed he'd like to stay a Blue Jay for life. David Rollins spent November through spring training's opening with four teams six times. Hall of Famer Willie McCovey was pardoned by outgoing President Obama over failing to pay taxes on earnings from 1995 memorabilia shows. Fellow Hall of Famer Duke Snider, in the same case, wasn't pardoned, presumably because Obama figured pardoning the dead did no good. Hardly the first time he was wrong. Obama, that is.

Often injured and too much bruised Josh Hamilton returned to the Rangers on a minor league deal — then underwent his 11th career knee surgery. Edinson Volquez's brother Brandy was killed in a Santo Domingo Oeste brawl. Brian Flynn — pitcher, hoping to find a home in the Royals' bullpen — had to put his plans on hold when he went through the roof ... of the barn he was working on at home, just days before he would have reported to spring training. It broke one rib, caused displaced fractures in three vertebrae, and took him out for eight weeks minimum. Approaching the All-Star Break, alas, Brandon Finnegan, Reds starting pitcher, tore his labrum ... jumping from a boat to a dock, eclipsing teammate closer Raisel Iglesias injuring his elbow and hips falling in a shower.

An investigation revealed Jose Fernandez drove the boat that killed him and two companions last fall — while he was drunk. The last settlements over the collapse of Curt Schilling's video game venture came in January. So did Jason Hammel's admission that he spurned the Cubs for the Royals over Joe Maddon's usage of him. Pablo Sandoval really did report to spring training early and having lost half a person while he was at it.

Baseball government really did consider opening extra innings with a designated man on second for each team at bat, in the interest of shortening game times, saying little to nothing about more practical measures as cutting the commercials for calls to the bullpen or eliminating the eight warmups for incoming relievers. (Which would also help preserve relievers' arms, but who the hell cares about that?) The Mariners decided bat flips were just too 2016.

Andrew McCutchen, dogged off-season by trade rumors after a rare down season in 2016, revealed he was among Pirate fans Googling him to learn of any news before he was moved to right field in spring training. Then everyone began wondering how he got his groove back when he picked up, dusted off, had a torrid late May and all June, and looked like his old self again — and non-waiver trade deadline trade fodder.

Actress Kate Upton on a bawdy-already radio show revealed how pitching days impact her, shall we say, intimate life with her significant other, pitcher Justin Verlander.

Tim Tebow, the Mets' experiment in who knew precisely what, went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and a wrong on-deck circle in his spring debut, but went on to impress in his first month at the Class A level. For awhile. In time he showed less than modesty at the plate — and got promoted to the higher A level anyway.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny jabbed at the (defending world champion) Cubs with T-shirts "saying something about winning at home." (The Cardinals in 2016: 40-41 on the road. The Cubs in 2016: 46-34.)

Israel jolted the World Baseball Classic by winning its first four but the United States jolted it by winning the Classsic, period. Eight (count 'em) Los Angeles Angels pitchers combined on a spring no-hitter with a little help from their diving friends with the leather in the ninth to seal it. When a nearby freeway collapse wasn't putting a crimp in the Braves' new stadium opening, a truck spilling out thousands of souvenir foam tomahawks was. Madison Bumgarner spent Opening Day hitting two bombs but the Giants spent it losing, a harsh portent of the first half to come. A wild pitch stuck to Yadier Molina's chest protector, helping the Cubs beat the Cardinals, and of course one and all denied any chicanery was afoot. Or abreast. That was the last time anything proved simple. For the Cubs, that is.

A gunman opened fire, killing one, aboard a double-deck Deuce bus in Las Vegas — outside the hotel where the Cubs stayed when playing the Reds in an exhibition game at Cashman Field. The Cubs left just before police cordoned off the area; the shooter was busted while the game was played. The Cubs opened the season 5-2 including their home opener: rain delayed their World Series flag hoisting, then Anthony Rizzo — who snared the final out of the '16 Series — won the game with an RBI. They'd look back upon that nostalgically by the All-Star Break, during which only one Cub made the National League All-Stars: Wade Davis, relief ace, who wasn't even on the 2016 Cubs. They could also look back at ending the first half two games under .500. The defending world champions who were supposed to march right back to the World Series now look as thought crawling back to the postseason may not be an option, either.

The rebuilding Phillies destroyed Nationals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie for ten runs in the first one day and his pitching career in the same inning ... then, the day after reliever Edubray Ramos tried to decapitate the Mets' Asdrubal Cabrera over a bat flip last fall, the Mets — with Yoenis Cespedes hitting three insane home runs before the fifth inning was done — destroyed them, 14-4. (It also destroyed Phillies starter Clay Buchholz, thanks to the same tendon tear that compromised him in Boston a couple of years back.) Orioles outfielder Adam Jones dealt with disgraceful racist remarks from some Fenway Park miscreants, the Red Sox formally apologized, then picked up where they'd left off in Baltimore two weekends previous: picking a disgraceful beanball war with the Orioles that compelled baseball government, by conference call, to proclaim a pox on both their houses.

The Mets mishandled Noah Syndergaard's biceps and shoulder discomfort and Syndergaard, playing tough guy in his turn, pitched his was to a torn lateral muscle and three months in drydock. Not to be outdone, Matt Harvey played golf one Saturday morning, developed a migraine headache before he might have reported to Citi Field, claimed a miscommunication with the Mets over it, and got himself suspended for three days while his Triple A call-up fill-in, Adam Wilk, took the brunt of a beating from the Marlins that kept the Mets from a weekend sweep. It came forth later Harvey was heartbroken over learning his girl friend decided to return to her former — he saw it in the papers first.

The Yankees stunned with their continually impressive corps of Baby Bombers, particularly Aaron (Here Come the) Judge ... until their disabled list and at least one starting pitcher (Michael Pineda) betrayed them enough in June to cause alarms in the South Bronx and elsewhere. Albert Pujols literally bounced a walk-off hit off the head of a White Sox outfielder. In time he smashed his 600th career home run — and a grand slam at that.

The Padres sent Saydee Bogard — daughter of Brewers second baseman Eric Sogard — cupcakes, after they saw a video of her crying because her father's tenth-inning go-ahead homer was nullified when the Padres' Hunter Renfroe hit a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom. That's class.

Late May: Rio Ruiz (Braves) hit one down the right field line that a fan grabbed to give a small boy, but a security guard described politely as overzealous took the ball and ejected the man — the ball turned out fair and the ruling was fan interference. The Braves themselves turned out pretty fair: they made sure the kid got a ball signed by injured star Freddie Freeman and tickets for the game on his June birthday.

Minor leaguer Josh Fuentes watched pitcher Cory Burns slip in his delivery and throw the ball toward the first base line — and swung anyway. He was rung up for a strikeout, and probably a heavy fine before his team's kangaroo court, if they have one. It wasn't funny, though, when Hunter Strickland, Giants relief pitcher, drilled Bryce Harper, Nationals MVP candidate, over 2 homers Harper hit off Strickland ... in the 2014 division series that the Giants went on to win. Harper was suspended 27 innings (three games), Strickland six.

This is a big reason people are sour on baseball government: hoping for Solomon, they get Inspector Clouseau. Jake Arrieta, Cubs pitcher, thought that and other brawl games was just wonderful. (For whom?) Near the end of June, umpire Joe West was hit in the head by a pitch — a ball thrown down from the stands. Having been hit in the head, he wasn't injured.

Three Oakland rookies (Matt Olson, Jaycob Brugman, Franklin Barreto) set a precedent in June — hitting their first major league home runs in the same game, against the same pitcher (James Shields, White Sox), all in the first three innings. Zack Cozart (Reds) made his first all-star team — and teammate Joey Votto (all-star reserve) made good on a spring training bet, presenting Cozart with ... a donkey.

One Nationals fan, Patrick Killebrew, who was probably old enough to have seen his Hall of Fame namesake hit a few for distance for the ancient Senators, passed away in June — with his family asking in lieu of flowers for contributions to the Nationals Bullpen Fund.

Nobody actually blamed the Nats' pen for his death. We think. Meanwhile, at the All-Star Break, four Nats are second, fourth, fifth, and seventh in the NL in OPS: in order — Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Daniel (What a Pair of Hands) Murphy, and Rendon ... with OPSes of .960 or better.

The reeling Mets followed a bushwhacking sweep at the Dodgers' hands by sweeping the worse-reeling Giants; it wasn't clear at the time which between the two would start re-tooling/rebuilding first, but rehabbing Madison Bumgarner also began hitting off a tee as part of his rehab. Yes, it got that bad for the Giants. It got this much worse for the Mets: days before the All-Star Game, during a swing to St. Louis, solid young outfielder Brandon Nimmo suffered a collapsed lung. The Mets' disabled list has had more action than the Mets on the field. So much for challenging the Nats in the NL East.

The Dodgers (NL West), the Brewers (you're not seeing things: NL Central), the Nats (NL East and what a surprise!), the Indians (AL Central, but with — what a real surprise — the Twins nipping at their heels), and the Red Sox (AL East, but with the Blue Jays nipping a little harder than the suddenly-faltering Yankees) entered the break at the top of the heaps, none of which does anything to obscure or answer baseball's number one question thus far: Do the Astros (Al West, and how!) — who really rubbed it in in their final game before the break, fricasseeing the Blue Jays 19-1 — have any weaknesses?

The Astros send six men to the All-Star Game and still have a few who could be considered snubs. Even their run differential — 180, almost double that of the second-place Yankees in the American League — is running away with the league, and the game. Just beware: Sports Illustrated predicted in 2014 that the Astros — who tore down radically to rebuild likewise — would be your 2017 World Series champions. And you know about the Sports Illustrated cover jinx, actual or alleged. (The cover boy for that '14 story: George Springer.)

The Cubs? Ah, wait till last year...

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