Somehow still in first

added 8/17/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

Part of me wishes the Cubs or Cardinals would literally get hotter than a cat on a tin roof and put the Astros and their fans out of their misery.

But then I realize that I’m one of those fans and I can’t really root against my guys. No matter how pathetic they look swinging a oh-two pitches in the dirt, not matter how many times I disagree with Jimy about when to make a move, no matter how many cutoff men are missed, no matter how many fat, juicy meat pitchers are served up by the pitchers, I still have to root for them and hope the Cards and Cubbies combine for nary a win between them from here on out.

But it sure would be easier as a fan if the Astros would just blow it big right now.

We are essentially right back where we started back in April. No, make that February. Back when we didn’t know how Bidge was really going to make the shift to center or how Jeff Kent would fit in with the club. Back when we didn’t know how much, if anything, we were going to get out of Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson and Jared Fernandez. Back when we weren’t sold on the shape of Baggy’s shoulder, or Doggie as he recovered from being shot by a carjacker, before we understood what a kid named Brad Lidge could do, back when we thought Adam Everett was still a year away and playing in New Orleans.

That’s where the Astros are right now. Depending what the Cardinals do Sunday evening, Houston is in first place either tied with St. Louis or by a half-game over Chicago. And despite the horribly disappointing 2-5 trek through Chicago and Cincinnati, the schedule now favors the Astros for the next couple of weeks with 12 games at home.

The first three of those games are the most important as the Cubs come to town. Though the Astros won’t be mathematically eliminated if they fail to win at least two of three from Chicago, I have to think losing the series would at least be the opening act to such a conclusion. If there’s any good news before the Cubs series opens it’s that two of the Chicago pitchers who have given Houston hitters fits this season, Carlos Zambrano and Shawn Estes, are not scheduled to pitch.

But the bad news is the Cubs have a very deep staff, so if you’re not facing Zambrano and Estes, it means you are facing Kerry Wood, Mark Prior and Matt Clement.

Getting this long homestand off to a good start is going to be tough. But at least the math is getting easier with just 38 regular season games left on Houston’s slate. If this season’s Astros production is going to draw reviews come October, the next three performances are huge.

WINS & LOSSES: The Astros’ full week got off to a great start with a 3-1 win on Monday over the Cubs at Wrigley. Wade Miller won the battle over Chicago’s Kerry Wood, and Jeff Kent had the key hit with a 2-run double in the 5th. Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner whiffed three over the final three innings to secure Miller’s first “W” on the week. Craig Biggio reached another milestone in the 9th inning when his homer that clanged off the left-field fair pole gave him 2,415 hits for his career and left him tied with the great Mickey Mantle at #94 on the all-time list. Wood also became the fastest pitcher to record 1,000 strikeouts when he fooled Kent in the 7th inning. I’m quite certain that almost all of those strikeouts were against the Astros.

Tuesday turned into Carlos Zambrano Night on the Windy City’s North Side. The Chicago righty had his sinker and high heater going en route to his first career shutout as the Cubs blanked the ‘Stros 3-0. Zambrano struck out 10, including 5-straight Houston batters in the 1st and 2nd innings (Blum-Bagwell-Kent-Berkman-Hidalgo).

Chicago won again Wednesday afternoon, this time 6-4 on the strength of a 3-run tater by Moises Alou. Houston fought back from 3-1 to take a 4-3 lead in the top of the 5th when the Astros took advantage of wildness on the part of Cubs starter Shawn Estes. But Alou’s blast in the bottom of the frame brought Chicago right back, and the Cubs’ bullpen pitched almost 5 innings of 3-hit, no-walk baseball to keep Houston off the board.

The losing continued on Thursday as the Cubs slapped the Astros 7-1. Matt Clement picked up his 10th win of the year for Chicago with some lengthy help from the Cubs’ pen once again, and Alex Gonzalez had 3 hits, including a homer, and drove in 3 runs.

Glad to just be out of Chicago, the Astros hoped their luck would change Friday in Cincinnati where the roadtrip continued. It didn’t, though it looked like it for a while before the Reds won 9-7 in the 10th inning on a walk-off home run by Adam Dunn. Jeff Kent and Jason LaRue each banged 2-run homers in the 1st inning to get the scoring going for both clubs. It stayed 2-2 until the top of the 7th when Ron Villone tried to help his own cause with a leadoff homer to give Houston a very short 3-2 lead. Cincinnati came right back in the bottom of the 7th with 5 runs, doing most of the damage off reliever Octavio Dotel and scoring all 5 runs after there were two outs. But the Astros had a big inning up their sleeves as well, with Craig Biggio’s 3-run homer a huge part of Houston’s 4-run 8th that knotted things back at seven runs apiece. It stayed that way until the bottom of the 10th when Dunn connected off Brad Lidge to give the Reds yet another last at bat win this season.

Wade Miller took to the mound Saturday for the second time in the week and the results were just about the same as he helped pitch the Astros to a 5-2 win to stop the 4-game slide. Lance Berkman contributed a 3-run homer, a laser shot in the 5th, to provide the bulk of the offense. And Miller allowed just 1 hit in his 6 innings of work, a hit that was ruled a double for Cincy rook Dernell Stenson in the 4th, but appeared to be a home run looking at the replays. Second base umpire Rob Drake apparently thought a fan leaning over interfered with the ball and ruled as such, wiping out what would’ve been Stenson’s first career fly.

Dernell Stenson didn’t have to wait long for another shot at his first big league homer, taking Tim Redding deep in the 2nd inning of Sunday’s series finale and helping the Reds to a 4-3 and helping bring to an end a horrible week on the road for the Astros. Stenson’s blast tied the game 1-1 after Jeff Bagwell gave Houston a quick 1-0 lead in the top of the 1st with a homer of his own, #408 of his long career. Jeff Kent’s RBI single gave the lead back to Houston in the 4th, but Bagwell’s fielding gaffe leading off the bottom of the frame proved to be Sunday’s fatal flaw as Juan Castro connected with Redding’s only other mistake on the day for a 3-run clout, all the runs unearned. The Astros never could get anything going against the Reds after that despite the rather “no-name” bunch Cincy has for a relief corps these days.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: Roy Oswalt continues to rest and rehab his injured groin, and there continues to be no set timetable for his return. Utility player extraordinaire Jose Vizcaino looks like he might be ahead of schedule as he comes back from the broken arm and surgery he’s been through this summer. Rumors are he will start a rehab assgnment this week in New Orleans, and could be back with the parent club as early as the Reds series next weekend.

Other than that the only malady these days is the depression that last week’s roadtrip left Astros fans in.

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: Rick White finally and completely cleared waivers meaning the Astros could put in a claim and bring him on board. And it’s a good thing GM Gerry Hunsicker was quick to claim the right-handed White since I’m sure so many other teams were lining up on the Waiver Wire to put in their claim.

Seriously, can anyone think of any reason why White should be pitching out of Houston’s pen over Kirk Saarloos? I have nothing against White personally, I do have a fair grasp of the rules in baseball governing options and waiver claims, and I’m all for making the club better or adding some veteran depth to the bullpen. I could see demoting Saarloos if we had augmented our Super Pen with someone like a Scott Williamson. But Rick White?

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: With 124 games in the book on this season, the Astros were 65-59 (.524) and still on top of the NLC. Tuesday’s opener with the Cubs should be a great day for Morgan Ensberg (Virgo) to lead the club on offense. Also look for a key pinch-hit from Orlando Merced (Scorpio). Brad Lidge (Capricorn) will be lights out on Wednesday. Thursday belongs to those born under the Sagittarius sign (Craig Biggio, Octavio Dotel and Ricky Stone). Friday will be Richard Hidalgo’s (Cancer) best day of the week. Saturday should be really nice to the team’s Aquarius Trio: Lance Berkman, Tim Redding and Adam Everett. And the next week concludes with whichever Aries backstop gets the start, Brad Ausmus or Gregg Zaun, having a solid day at and behind the plate on Sunday.

Monday 4-4 . . . Tuesday 11-8 . . . Wednesday 10-9 . . . Thursday 9-10 . . . Friday 13-7 . . . Saturday 8-12 . . . Sunday 10-9

STAR OF THE WEEK: My Shooting Star this week goes to Wade Miller who certainly did his part this week to keep the team in the NL Central race. If anyone else had joined in the fun the Astros could be out in front by several games. Miller pitched tough on Monday in Houston’s 3-1 win at Wrigley, then came back on Saturday and stopped the 4-game losing streak with a 1-hitter in his 6 innings of work. The pair of Dubya’s evened Miller’s mark at 10-10, allowing just 2 earned runs and 6 hits in his 12 innings on the mound while striking out 13 in the process.

ON DECK: After a tough week on the road, the Astros can at least look forward to coming home and having Monday off before opening a very big 12-game homestand. First up are the Cubs with a 3-game set beginning Tuesday. The Reds follow Chicago to town this weekend for three, then the Astros will take next Monday off before hosting the Dodgers and Padres for three games each to close the month of August.

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