Schedule central to Astros’ division hopes

added 7/27/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

If it wasn’t for that oh-two pitch Wade Miller grooved to Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano on Friday night, it would’ve been a pretty good week for the Houston Astros. And with just nine weeks left on their 2003 schedule, the Astros need all the good weeks they can get if they are going to take the division crown.

And part of how well they are going to do the next nine weeks will be determined by how the remaining 57 games are arranged on the schedule.

Now I don’t pretend to understand how a major league schedule is determined. I do know there are 162 games for each team, with those split 81 apiece at home and out of town, and all of is supposed to take place between late March and late September. Oh, and this year the teams are playing what is called an unbalanced schedule.

What I thought “unbalanced” meant was we would play teams in our own division, that being the NL Central, more times than we would play the other squads on the 2003 itinerary. What I didn’t understand “unbalanced” meant was the timing and spacing of the 52 separate series on the slate.

Players Kenny Lofton and Aramis Ramirez can best illustrate the “unbalanced” nature of Houston’s 2003 schedule. This past Tuesday that pair was dealt from the Pirates to the Cubs. Tuesday was also the day Houston matched up against the Pirates for the regular season. The Astros still had 9 games against the Chicago when the trade was made. Though neither Lofton or Ramirez will play in every game their team(s) face Houston this season, it was possible for both players to go up against the Astros, and vice-versa, 28 times which begs the question would that be an advantage for the hitters or the pitchers?

Another question that pops into mind is why didn’t we play the Cubs more before now, and why did we play the Pirates so much in the first 100 games? And why will we be some 125 games into the season before we ever see the likes of the Padres or Dodgers?

More than trying to spread the Astros’ victims, er, I mean opponents out more evenly, what’s with all the quirky little road trips and homestands this year? I’m calling it “quick tripping,” and the Astros have been quick-tripped four times already this year.

Going back to the season opener in Houston versus the Rockies, the Astros then took a 3-game quick trip to St. Louis that turned into a 2-game quick trip because of rain. Houston promptly returned home for 6 games with the Reds and Cards after the short stop in St. Louie.

The schedule maker then sent Houston off on a tough 6-game swing through Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park back in June (10-15). After that the Astros came back to Houston for just three short days (June 17-19) to face the Diamondbacks before being quickly dispatched back to the road to face Texas and Arizona.

Sandwiched between a 6- and 7-game homestand in late June and early July was a 3-day jaunt to Pittsburgh and back over Independence Day weekend. And this most recent 3-game mini-homestand with the Cubs is smack-dab in the middle of 8- and 6-game roadtrips.

Houston also has another mini-homestand in September, a potentially huge 3-game set against the Cardinals that comes in the middle of 10- and 6-game roadtrips.

Now even a hardheaded old guy like myself knows it’s impossible to come up with a schedule that makes all 30 teams and their fans happy. From the unbalanced number of teams playing in each division to the “interleague rival” wrench that gets tossed into the works, there probably is no way to fix it where everything is perfect.

But I’d sure like to see MLB try and make it better, at least smooth out the quick trips in the schedule.

The schedule actually favors Houston for the next month. At least that’s what I keep telling myself as the team heads to Atlanta for three games against the spawn of Satan that some people call the Braves. But Houston does have 18 of their next 31 games at home. The Astros also have 13 games against the Cardinals and Cubs among their next 57 contests.

It’s important that the club take care of business at home over the next month while the schedule favors them slightly. Otherwise it’s going to make for a long September when the club is on the road and, ultimately, an even longer winter of waiting ‘til next year.

WINS & LOSSES: Houston opened the week on the road and splitting a pair of mini, 2-game series in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. The Pirates jumped all over Tim Redding early in Monday’s game and the Astros’ rally fell short in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 win. Tee Red failed to make it out of the 3rd inning, surrendering all 5 Buc tallies, and homers from Jeff Bagwell (#401 on his career) and Jeff Kent (#266) were not enough to bring Houston back.

Jeriome Robertson pitched into the 8th inning on Tuesday before getting help from Brad Lidge and Billy Wagner to complete a 3-hit, 2-0 shutout in the final regular season meeting with the Pirates. Robertson drove in a run himself as he set the franchise rookie record with his 9th-straight win. Morgan Ensberg banged his 19th tater of the season for Houston’s other run.

Lance Berkman poked an opposite field pop just far enough to make it over the fence in the 11th inning of Wednesday’s 3-2 comeback in Milwaukee. Houston trailed 2-1 in the 9th before Berkman doubled and scored on an Eric Bruntlett sac fly to force bonus play. Berkman’s bleacher souvenir in the 11th made Astros rookie Mike Gallo a major league winner for the very first time.

Houston’s offense continued to rest on Thursday, and Brewers right-hander Ben Sheets enjoyed a handing the Astros a relatively easy 2-1 defeat to hang in the loss column. Except for the 6 walks Houston starter Ron Villone allowed, and the error by Adam Everett in the 2nd that gave Milwaukee their first run, the game might still be going.

The Astros returned to Houston on Friday and let a gift get away from them as the Cubs rallied for a 5-3 win. The Astros took a 3-0 lead on Chicago in the 1st thanks to an error by new Cubs 3B Aramis Ramirez. But Chicago starter Carlos Zambrano didn’t let that faze him and settled into a groove before helping himself with a 2-run homer off Wade Miller that tied the game. Former Astro Moises Alou won it with a 2-run blast off a struggling Octavio Dotel in the 8th.

The Astros knotted the series a game apiece with Saturday’s 3-1 win over both the Cubs and the umpires. Tim Redding tossed 7 innings of 2-hit ball; the Cubs’ only run coming on a Tal’s Hill triple and a bad call by 1B umpire Mike Fichter. Lidge and Wagner once again finished up for Houston. The Astros once again got off to a quick start thanks to poor Chicago fielding, this time a missed double play opportunity that led to 2 Houston runs. And Jeff Bagwell’s homer in the 6th sealed it.

And Sunday saw rookie Jeriome Robertson’s impressive run of 9 straight wins come to an end with Chicago’s 5-3 triumph. J Rob just didn’t have it from the very outset, giving up homers to Sammy Sosa and Eric Karros in the first 2 frames and being relieved by Kirk Saarloos just 5 outs into his afternoon. Houston fought back but came up short against Cubs starter Shawn Estes who once again looked like Sandy Koufax on the Minute Maid mound.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: With the exception of news on Rodrigo Rosario’s shoulder, it was a good week on the health front for the Astros. Shortstop Adam Everett missed a little bit of time early in the week due to the bruised hand he suffered when plunked by a Ryan Dempster pitch in the previous Reds series. And rumors persist that reliever Octavio Dotel may need more than just a few days off to heal his body. He did tweak a hammy a while back, but was reportedly recovered from that. Whatever, something is affecting his velocity, and we can only hope it’s the more easily cured midseason dead-arm than something worse.

The chances of Rosario’s shoulder returning to normal without surgery are getting slimmer. Doctors in Houston have advised the 25-year-old righty to undergo exploratory arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. Diagnosed with tendinitis in the joint, the shoulder has not been responding to the old rest, therapy and exercise routine. Rosario is scheduled to visit well-known orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Alabama in the coming week for a second opinion.

There was some news regarding southpaw Carlos Hernandez who underwent major shoulder surgery in February. Hernandez has been progressing with his scheduled rehab and is on target to resume throwing off a mound starting Monday (28 July). What a plus it would be to have this guy back and healthy when camp opens next February.

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: Houston struggled through a 3-4 week and sit atop the NL Central with a record of 57-48 as July draws to a close. Look for Roy Oswalt to get offensive support from his fellow Virgo Morgan Ensberg on Tuesday with the New Moon. Lance Bergman and Adam Everett (both Aquarius) should shine on Wednesday. Thursday will be Jeff Bagwell’s (Gemini) best day on this roadtrip. Brad Ausmus (Aries) should enjoy this Friday in Miami. Saturday will be a strong day for Billy Wagner (Leo). And next Sunday should be Richard Hidalgo’s (Cancer) best game of the trip.

Monday 3-4 . . . Tuesday 11-5 . . . Wednesday 8-8 . . . Thursday 9-7 . . . Friday 11-6 . . . Saturday 7-10 . . . Sunday 8-8

STAR OF THE WEEK: Lance Berkman gets my Shooting Star for the last seven days. Berkman led an otherwise sluggish offense with 9 hits on the week (.375) with a homer, 3 doubles, 3 RBI and 4 runs scored. Give Jeff Bagwell runner-up for his 3 home runs.

ON DECK: The Astros get another Monday off before heading east for 3-game sets in Atlanta and Florida. Houston is back home the following week for a 6-game homestand against the Mets and Expos.

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