Looking Ahead

added 7/14/2001 by John Lauck

"Don't look back," the pitcher Satchel Paige once said. "Somebody might be gaining on you."

Paige was in his very late forties when he made that statement, and the wisest among us have always believed he had much more than baseball in mind when he said it. But here, at just past the true halfway point of the 2001 major league baseball season, Paige's remark also speaks volumes about the current state of the race in the NL Central. The Chicago Cubs, front-runners in the division for most of the season, have sneaked a peek behind them at least twice over the past two weeks to find that, in fact, the Astros have been gaining on them.

Implicit in Paige's advice not to look back is an invitation to do the converse: to look ahead, to keep alive one's spirit and renew one's hopes by thinking about what may be in store for us in the future. The baseball-superstitious among us (I am myself mildly superstitious) may look upon such an exercise with fear and trembling, but to those people I say, calm yourselves; the baseball superstitions that mean anything occur game to game; they don't apply to the season as a whole. There should be no harm, then, in taking a look ahead at what may be in store for the Astros and for us as the season grinds on.

The remainder of July after the All-Star break sets up well for Houston. The Astros have a chance to make some real progress this month, with a lot of home games on the card. . .and that's what worries me. Houston has struggled to reach a break-even 20-20 mark at home to this point in the year, and it will be imperative that the team improve substantially upon that record. Fortunately, they've shown signs recently of being able to do just that, with a 6-4 homestand and an impressive 2-1 series win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the recent past. The twelve-game homestand that opens up on July 12 will be crucial to any hopes the Astros have of making a meaningful run at the division title. Everybody is pointing to those four games at the end of the stand with the Cubs, and that's understandable, but the eight games before then will determine how much those games with the Cubs will mean. San Diego will be dangerous, even taking into account their current tailspin. But most of the damage the Padres did earlier this season and last year at Enron was against a shellshocked Astros pitching staff that doesn't exist anymore. The series I'd pay money to see is with Cleveland. Lordy, what a hitting contest that promises to be! The Indians have improved their bullpen, but the Astros could pound the daylights out of that shaky Tribe starting staff. If Houston can emerge from these two series in good shape (say, 4-2), they'll be ready for the Cardinals and the Cubs. A split with St. Louis seems likely to me (Enron makes the Redbirds tougher than they would otherwise be), but I think Houston is going to be ready for Chicago. With all due respect to the very fine pitching the Cubs have gotten all season long, the Astros' lineup is extraordinarily tough right now, but on the defensive side of things, Houston's pitching is far better than the Cubs saw earlier in the year, and that's the main reason I look for the Astros to take three of four, to close out an 8-4 homestand.

A seven-game road trip against St. Louis and Pittsburgh and the beginning of a homestand against the Mets closes July. The oddity of playing two two-game series against the Cardinals home and road may work in Houston's favor. St. Louis has injury problems in their lineup all right, but the two-game sets will not allow Tony LaRussa to use the depth of his pitching staff against the Astros, either. Pittsburgh is, to me, the scary part of this trip. The Astros often have a difficult time playing well against the Pirates, and it won't be easy here with a make-up doubleheader to deal with but I am hopeful that the Astros' pitching staff will pitch inside on them more often on this trip than they did earlier this season and keep Astro-poison hitters like John Vander Wal from swinging free and easy. Before the season, this looked like a 3-3 trip to me; now, it looks more like a 5-2 trip. The Astros should be able to open that home series against the weak Mets with a victory that will bring us to the trade deadline and to the start of August.

Gerry Hunsicker has said repeatedly that he is always alert to a major deal to improve the ballclub, but he has also said just as often that such deals are rare. For example, the trade that brought Randy Johnson to the Astros in 1998 occured under a set of unusual circumstances--we had a top-flight unhappy pitcher, and a contending team with pitching depth in its farm system. Things could change between now and the end of the month, of course, but it doesn't appear that a truly major trade is in the works for the Astros, and that means that Moises Alou and Daryle Ward, both of whom were thought to be Astros who could be traded for significant value in return, are safe. In Alou's case, his contractural status as a veteran was and is a major impediment to trading him anywhere, but the over-riding reason he hasn't been dealt anywhere has been his simply superb hitting for two years running and his surprisingly good play in right field this season. Ward retains his value as a left-handed pinch-hitter, and we might see him get a little more playing time in August and September to prevent Alou and Lance Berkman from wearing down. The team has been rumored to be in the hunt for another left-handed reliever (Toronto's Dan Plesac) and another starting pitcher. Plesac's price appears to be well-within Drayton McLane's comfort range, but another starting pitcher would likely cost Houston more of its precious depth in the farm system, so that kind of trade seems unlikely to me. I like the idea of getting another reliever, but I hope also that Hunsicker is scouting around for another right-handed bat to strengthen that side of Houston's bench for the stretch run. The Astros could go outside their system to get one, but don't forget they could simply dip down to AAA and recall Chris Truby, a move that could provide them with just as good a bat as they could get anywhere else. Truby had a terrible problem with strikeouts as an Astro in April and May, but he's had close to three months to smooth out his swing and improve his eye at New Orleans, and he's done a good job over here since he was sent down. Truby excites me a little more as a right-handed pinch-hitter than Scott Servais does, and he would also give Dierker better insurance for Vinny Castilla at third than Jose Vizcaino does. It wouldn't be at all surprising to me, then, to see Truby work his way back up to the Astros before the season is over.

While we're on the subject of starting pitchers, I've already rhapsodized on Roy Oswalt over on Astroday, but Houston has, as we all know, another young pitcher in its rotation, Tim Redding. Everybody is pulling for Scott Elarton to work out his mechanical problems and contribute to a second-half push for the Astros, but because of the significant uncertainty surrounding him, what Redding does in the second half may be just as important, if not more so. He's had one inning of big trouble in both of his starts, but I love the guy's stuff. It is perhaps a bold prediction, but if the Astros can get, say, five wins out of this man between now and the end of September, they will be in very good shape. Five wins may be asking a lot, but given Elarton's struggles, that's exactly what the Astros may need to catch the Cubs or stay ahead of them as the race winds down.

August opens with the continuation of a homestand against the Mets and Montreal. I look for a split of the remaining games with New York and a sweep of the Expos, who have just had a dreadful year. A tough six-game road trip to Atlanta and Florida will follow.

The Braves might be once again comfortably on top of a substantially weaker NL East at this juncture of the schedule, and the Astros might be catching them as they are starting to peak; that's bad news. They appear to me to have come out ahead in the deal that sent John Rocker to Cleveland, and a better bullpen usually means playoff success, but you have to get to the playoffs first, and I'm not sold on Atlanta's starting pitching this year. Tom Glavine looks particularly mortal. Despite the swoon of the young Marlins in June, the state of Florida remains a hellish place for the Astros to play; August in Miami should be just great. Houston will be fortunate to escape from both these places with its skin intact, but I think the trip might even be a little better than the 2-4 record I forecast in February. Call it 3-3, and hope for more. It was at this point in the year that I thought the club might call up Oswalt; I am delighted to have been flat wrong on the timing of that projection. The seven-game homestand against the Pirates and Cubs may be less crucial than I thought it would be, depending on how the Astros will have done on the stand that opens July 12. But this August stand still has the look of a 5-2 set to me. From there, a six-game road trip will take the Astros to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Realism suggests I call this one the same way I did back in February, 3-3; and I think I will. August closes with three home games against the forlorn Reds and the start of a road trip to Milwaukee. Houston dare not let its guard down against the road-dangerous Reds, and I don't think the Astros will. The club figures to take three of these four to end the month and head into September on a high note.

In my original February projection, the final month of the season set up as a killer for the Astros, because of the number of road games they'll play and the quality of those road opponents. I had them going 10-18. But now, you'll be happy to know that I am much more hopeful about the final month of the season, even with the 28 games the Astros will play, mostly because of the club's improved pitching, both starting and relief. If they keep their health, they'll do fine. Look for a split, perhaps, at Milwaukee to get things going, but Houston should rebound by taking two of three at Cincinnati. A caution, though: two of those games are day games, and such games make me nervous. I figure the team will take three of four against the Brewers at Enron, and that will set the stage for what could be three of the most important games of the season when San Francisco comes to town. Both teams will most likely be in the thick of things in their respective divisions, and that means these two heavyweights are going to go at each other for the full fifteen rounds. In the pre-season, I gave a big edge here to the Giants because of their bullpen, but I don't feel that way now. If the Astros can hammer San Francisco's starting pitching and avoid their set up men and closer Robb Nen, they can take two of three. On the critical six-game road trip to St. Louis and San Francisco that follows, I expect the Astros to stumble, going 2-4 over that stretch, but with what could be huge series upcoming at home against the Cubs and Cardinals, the team figures to be ready to play, and I expect them to rebound and take both of those series two games to one.

That leaves the final four games of the year to be played, on the road in Chicago. I have marvelled at this bit of scheduling since early June, when it became apparent the Cubs weren't going to fold. Who would've believed last winter that these four games could be so potentially vital? Surely not the NL schedule-makers. Those men and women are smart, but not that smart. If the Astros are making the push I think they'll be making, they'll play this series hard, but the Cubs may have something to play for, too: the Wild Card. I'd like it very much if the Astros took three out of four in this series, but if the Cubs are still in range of the playoffs, a split of the series is much more likely.

When I add up the numbers, then, I find--somewhat to my surprise, and maybe to your surprise--the Astros bringing the regular season to a close with a 96-66 record, which would tie this team with the third-best mark in franchise history, probably give them the NL Central title, and link them, at least on paper, with the 1986 team that finished with the same 96-66 record and won the NL west by ten games. We who remember that '86 team venerate it because of its tough pitching, its hustle in the field, and its extraordinary resilience, and it may strike some of you who have read this column as folly to think that the 2001 Astros can reach the level of excellence that the '86 team did. But let me remind you that, here and now, the Cubs are already at 51 wins for the season. They may fade, but they won't quit. If their pitching stays healthy--and I'm betting it will--it will take at least 90 wins to capture the Central anyway. My projection of the Astros getting to 96 wins simply reflects my growing belief--based on observation of all parts of the club--that the Astros are better than the Cubs, and they'll prove it when they meet on the field. The two teams have fourteen games remaining with each other this season so, while there may be some second-guessing over the winter about how well the Astros played against the Pirates or the Reds, there won't be room for any belly-aching about the games against the Cubs. The two teams will settle it on the field, and that's all we can ask. If you think my look ahead is overly-optimistic, consider this, too: the 1986 Astros were only 47-41 at this point. The present team is 48-38. The starting pitching on the earlier club was better than this year's, but the '86 starters didn't take off until after the All-Star break. The bullpens of the two teams strike me as pleasantly similar. They are about equal in depth (in fact, this year's pen might be deeper), and this year's pen has an edge in playoff experience.

Although I cannot in good conscience equate the starting pitching of the 2001 Astros with their 1986 brethren, I'll tell you who they do remind me of: the 1969 Astros. The trio of Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt, and Shane Reynolds stacks up pretty well with the young guns Don Wilson, Tom Griffin, and Larry Dierker. (Recall that, as young as he was, Dierker was already by 1969 filling the role of staff veteran that Shane Reynolds is now.) That team, too, made a splendid pennant run before fading in September. (Can you imagine what that staff could have done with the hitters on this year's team? Have mercy!) The biggest difference between those earlier pitching-based clubs and this one is that this one can hit. Such hitting will almost inevitably take a backseat to pitching in the playoffs, but a team has to be able to hit during the regular season in order to get to the playoffs, and it's a great comfort to know that, even if Alou and Berkman tail off offensively just a little in the second half, the team will still hit.

Having thus looked ahead about as far as it is possible (or prudent) to look, it's wise to return to the present moment and focus on the task at hand. A cliche or not, it remains true that the most important games for any team are the ones coming up. Much of the success of the Astros I hope for is predicated on the team playing championship-caliber baseball at Enron Field. Although my feelings have not changed about how difficult it is for a home staff to pitch there 81 times (the Crawford Boxes must go), I have been encouraged by the team's recent success there. The long homestand that starts July 12 will not only give us a good read on just how well the Astros are finally adapting to their home, it will also go a long way toward determining whether Houston will actually overcome that three-game deficit in the standings, as many of us think the team will, and give us something to look forward to in October.

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