The Houston Astros are playing much, much better recently than they have in months. They traded away two of the franchise's most iconic players and have stacked the roster with young players who don't have any expectations. The result is a 26-16 run since August 1 and a lot more hope from the fan base.
What can we do with this? How about comparing this team to one of the best shows on TV in "Friday Night Lights?"
(No, it isn't a stretch. They're both from Texas. They're both awesome. Don't overthink it.)
Without further ado:
Smash Williams - Brett Myers: Is there any question Smash carried those Dillon Panthers in the first two seasons? They had an inexperienced quarterback who could make some big throws, but for the most part needed a strong running game to keep the pressure off him. Myers has carried the Astros by pitching at least six innings in all 30 of his starts this season, by being the ace of this staff once Oswalt was traded and by generally being awesome.
To top it off, both guys could be generously described as "confident." Lots of people don't like Myers and I'm sure there were lots of people who didn't like Smash, especially when he got involved with the bipolar girl who said she was living in Africa. Not saying the girl's character was bad, but Smash was just a little annoying in that story line.
Matt Saracen - Hunter Pence: Everyone's favorite QB1 meets up with everyone's favorite Astro. Saracen came on in a flurry, winning game after game in his first season as a starter, much like Hunter went crazy in his rookie season. Both fell off directly after that, with Saracen getting pushed in Season 3 and not living up to the pressure while Pence fell off precipitously from his rookie numbers.
Yet, both rebounded with very strong performances late. Saracen came into that second championship game after stupid JD McCoy lost the team and led the Panthers back with a chance to win another title. Pence turned around a slow start to 2010 to lead the team in home runs, RBIs and runs. His performance in Astros wins (.341/.397/.601) rivals Matty's performance in the episode this past year when his father dies.
Jason Street - Jeff Bagwell: I had a couple different people here before realizing Baggy was the perfect addition. See, like Street, his career was ended early due to injury. Like Street, he came back to coach in a temporary capacity that we all hope ends up being a permanent thing. Like Street, he's likeable and driven to succeed, acting as a natural leader around others.
We'll just focus on the good parts of Street's tenure on the show, ignoring the Mexico hiatus (since Season 2 of FNL never happened) and looking at his trip to New York with Riggins as Bagwell's busting everyone's chops in the clubhouse now. Seems like a natural fit.
Lyla Garrity - JA Happ: Here's a sneaky good comparison. Lyla was, obviously, smoking hot. And yet, Minka Kelly wasn't the best actor on the show. She had her moments, especially in the episode where Tyra posts the slam website about her.
Similarly, Happ is always going to look good to teams because he throws with his left hand. Lefties who can strike guys out (Happ's sitting at 7.3 K/9) are rare indeed. Happ came with a tarnished reputation from his time in Philly, much like Lyla's rep took a hit with her sordid relationship with Tim Riggins. Still, Happ has the potential to be a top-flight starter on a contending team, just like Lyla moved on from bigger and better things for Vanderbilt by the end of the show's run.
Tim Riggins - Chris Johnson: Who doesn't like Tim Riggins? From his constant nicknaming (I'll admit, I try to drawl out numbers for football players when I watch games with my wife. I'm more amused by it than she is) to all his obvious warts and general lack of ambition, Tim was quickly one of the favorite characters on the show for many fans.
Johnson has a lot of the same warts. Think of his average to below-average defense as Tim's drinking. Think of his constant brushes with the law as Johnson's high batting average on balls in play. Think of Tim's constant hookups with the hot next-door neighbor, Tyra, Lyla and the rest as Johnson's epic power potential that doesn't always translate to the games. Tim's walk to the jail at the end of Season 4 could be like Johnson's end run to the 2010 season, since he figures to not be nearly this lucky next season. I still can't wait to see him try, though, just as I can't wait to see Tim's inevitable return in Season 5.
Tyra Collette - Wandy Rodriguez: That's right. Wandy is Tyra. Not very good in the early seasons, Tyra/Wandy came into his/her own right around Season 3/his third big league season. Gone were the rankling walks/self-destructive fights with Tim or flings with traveling salesman that she assumes will help her get out of Dillon.
When Tyra dropped the whole "I can't stand this town, get me out of here!!" schtick and started hanging out with Julie Taylor, that's like when Wandy's curve took a step forward and he broke out in 2009. That continued with Tyra's triumphantly studying, working hard and getting into college, much like Wandy getting on the same page as Brad Arnsberg and posting one of the lowest ERAs since the All-Star break.Tyra was never the MVP of a particular episode, but she was crucial to many of the stories. Similarly, Wandy won't ever be the ace of this staff, but he could be a solid No. 3 for a contender.
Coach Taylor - Brad Mills: This is probably the easiest comparison out there. Mills, like Coach with East Dillon, inherited a bad team. They both had to grow with the program and endure tons of grief (Gold Chain Guy walking out on the team, the 0-8 start), but got things turned around in epic fashion (the win over Dillon High, approaching .500). Both are also great leaders coming from strong programs in the past (Mills from Boston, Coach from Dillon). Both are also great teachers and seem to get a lot out of young players.
Mrs. Coach - Brad Arnsberg: Yep, the glue that holds the Taylor family together is just like the glue that holds the Astros pitching staff together. Neither get as much credit as they deserve, but both have been invaluable to the season/the series run.
Buddy Garrity - Carlos Lee: Oh, Buddy. There isn't a character on FNL that makes you cringe more than the former booster club ringleader. That's why he fits perfectly with Carlos, since El Bufalo is one of the only players on Houston's roster to make me cringe consistently.
Buddy does some crazy things and probably drinks a little too much. Carlos is one of the most happy-go-lucky players on the team and keeps the mood light. Buddy does have his nice moments, being a friend to Coach and helping get him money for the East Dillon team by rounding up members of the old championship squad. Carlos also has some nice moments this season, with a couple walkoff hits and home runs.
The big reason why they're so linked is the downward spiral they both seem to be on. As the series has gone on, Buddy has lost his wife, his family, his spot as decision-maker on the Dillon booster club, his daughter has gone off to college, he's broke, his affair blew up in his face and he lives in a dumpy little apartment. Lee is having one of the worst seasons of his career, posting career lows in home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS+ and Wins Above Replacement. His defense is so bad, he's actually got a negative 2.0 WAR, despite putting up decent offensive numbers. I'm also not sure if redemption is in store for either character as next season looms.
JD McCoy - St. Louis Cardinals: A jerk = an entire team of jerks. Need I say more?
Landry Clarke - Michael Bourn: Here's the thing with FNL. The reason I like it so much is that I like almost all the characters. They all bring something to the table. Landry is no exception, proving both a comedic gold mine as well as a solid supporting player in this show. Was he stretched when asked to play a lead in Season 4? Probably a little, but it was more because he didn't have Tyra or Matty around any more. Landry was best when he was riffing off those two in scenes.
Bourn is the same way. The things he does well don't stand out. He's fast, but more importantly, he's a great baserunner. He's great defensively at a premium position, but there aren't many ways to measure that tangibly (defensive metrics are problematic but getting better). But, when he's asked to carry the offense or do too much, he'll disappoint. He strikes out way too much (a flaw much like Landry's terrible form as a kicker) and doesn't have a terribly high on-base percentage. We also need to gloss over that horrible first season in Houston, just like we can gloss over that whole "I killed Tyra's rapist and dumped him in the river" plotline for Landry.
With Landry gone to graduation this year, it'll be hard to fill his gap as the easy comic relief on the show, just as it'd be nigh impossible to find someone who could easily play as well in center field as Bourn does and also be a better leadoff hitter.
Vince Howard - Brett Wallace: One of the newest characters in the show is one of the newest Astros. Vince was best known as Wallace from Season 1 of The Wire...see the connection yet? Wallace, Wallace?
Let's go deeper, though. Vince came to Coach Taylor in an unexpected way, a cop car. Wallace showed up in an unexpected trade, getting flipped for one of the pieces from the Oswalt trade, Anthony Gose. Vince was very raw at first but improved into a team leader and flashed quite a bit of potential. Wallace has also shown flashes of brilliance but had a rough start to his Astros career and has just recently gotten his average back over .200.
Both will have big things in store for them next season, but it's unclear where their ceiling is at. Will Vince fall back into his rough-and-tumble background? Can his team actually win anything in the upcoming fifth and final season? Will Wallace be anything more than a league average first baseman or can he become a star for the team in the future?
Ray 'Voodoo' Tatum - J.R. Towles: Voodoo was recruited to Dillon under shady circumstances. Towles was drafted by shady front office types. Well, maybe shady isn't the right word. Incompetent works much better. No one liked Voodoo, even though he showed mind-boggling talent and would have led the team to a state championship. Towles was a rare catcher who could also hit (at least in the minors), though he could never get it going in the majors. Similarly, Voodoo didn't take to coaching well and ended up transferring out of Dillon. Soon, Towles will also be ridden out of town after he was demoted by request of Roy Oswalt (as the conspiracy theorists would have you believe).
Billy Riggins - Brandon Lyon: If there is a bad idea, Billy Riggins will jump on it. Try to steal wire from a construction site? Sure, sign him up. Want to turn his garage into a chop shop? Sounds great! Getting married because you knocked up your stripper girlfriend? Why not? Billy is still redeemable in some episodes, providing a swift kick to the butt when Tim needs it and trying hard to be a father-figure to him, even if the pressure weighs on him.
Lyon's three-year contract was not a good idea. Relievers should not be given good money for three years, because their performance is so volatile. Unless your name is Mariano Rivera, relievers are going to have down seasons and not perform up to their contract demands. Or, they may just get injured. Lyon's contract was a bad idea, even if his performance this year has been good. He probably doesn't need to be the everyday closer, since he'll occasionally blow a save with a home run, but he's a solid addition to the bullpen if he's not asked to do too much.
Julie Taylor - Bud Norris: I know I said that no character was more cringe-inducing than Buddy and that Smash was possibly annoying to many. But, geez, Julie Taylor has to take the annoying cake, right? First, she dumped Matty for no reason. Then, she decided she liked him again and has always given Coach and Mrs. Coach too much trouble than they deserved. At the same time, she's showed some great range in her Matt storylines and been one of the best young actors on TV at times.
Sound familiar? Budly made people adopt Chuck Norris Facts for him. He dominated St. Louis so much in the past year and a half, they're literally afraid of him. When Bud is right, he is a strikeout machine. Still, he can be maddeningly inconsistent and walks way too many batters to get comfortable with him high in a rotation. You like having him around, just like Julie, but he annoys the crap out of you just the same.
Santiago Herrera - Jason Bourgeois: Does anyone remember when Santiago was the promising tight end from the wrong side of town? Nope, because he came in Season 2 and all record of that season has been erased by Jason Katims and company. Bourgeois has also disappeared from this team, only to make an appearance randomly every week or so. He's only been in six of the 13 games this month, but he should be getting more time. Instead, will he be brought back next season? I'm not so sure.
Luke Cafferty - Jeff Keppinger: Another new addition to FNL, Luke was torn away from Dillon High and sent to East Dillon because of Buddy. He wasn't happy about it, nor were the Dillon boosters. That's exactly how Astros fans reacted to Keppinger's trade. They were mad that the Astros gave up a promising prospect in Drew Sutton for a nobody like Kepp.
Fortunately, both proved much more valuable than expected, in low-key ways. Keppinger has been a very solid player for Houston for the past two seasons, doing all the little things well, seeing a bunch of pitches, playing solid if unspectacular defense and hitting doubles. Cafferty was a workhorse who never complained, practiced even if he had to put up a fence in the dark or before school and tried to play through one of the nastiest bruised hips I've ever seen. Basically, they're both gamers. You need at least one of those guys on any baseball team/football show.
Becky Sproles - Jason Castro: Another new character for Season 4, Becky prompted more moments that could have made women say, "Bless her heart." Becky had a hard-luck life and a hard-luck romance with one Tim Riggins, not unlike the hard-luck start to his major league career suffered by Jason Castro.
Luanne Saracen - Jason Michaels: They make you sad because everyone gets old. They make you feel bad for the team/Matty who has to keep them around/taker care of her. At the same time, they provide these little moments here and there that are so huge to the season, whether it's a funny line for Luanne or her accepting Matt's mom as a caretaker so Matty can pursue his dreams in Chicago.
Michaels has had some game-winning hits, made some great plays in the outfield, but ultimately needs to move on before he stunts the development of someone like Bourgeois or Brian Bogusevic.
Angela Collette - Tommy Manzella: Oh, dear. We've reached the end of these comparisons and this one is a doozy. If you remember, Angela is Tyra's train wreck of a mother. None of the advice she ever gives her daughter is good. None of the decisions she makes are particularly good, including choosing to have an affair with Buddy.
It's the same with Manzella. He can't really hit. He only shows flashes of solid ability with his glove and he doesn't provide a whole lot to the team. Like Angela, we got excited about him coming off the DL with a hot streak, but ultimately, he backslid into his previous levels too easily. Just like Angela will backslide into another terrible relationship (didn't one of the guys she saw hit on Tyra? I'm positive that happened.).
And that about sums it up. There are more characters on the show and more players on the Astros team, but I didn't want to stretch the metaphor any more than I already had. Now, go watch some more of the Astros and pop in a disc from FNL, Season 1 and enjoy the goodness there too.