Astros, the best coaster ride in town!

added 7/14/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

Used to be that the best roller coaster ride in Houston was over at Astroworld. But these days, the best coaster is downtown at the corner of Texas and Crawford.

Right now the ride is pretty thrilling, full of career milestones, career firsts and plenty of Dubya’s to hang on the season ledger. It wasn’t that way a week ago when the same coaster seemed to be struggling uphill, that annoying clanking noise under your seat growing louder and louder and louder until you just know the cars will lose their grip on the track and go crashing down the rails backwards.

But such is the 2003 season for the Houston Astros, sometimes struggling uphill and other times zipping along the track with incredible speed and amusement.

I really don’t remember a more frustrating season. Sure, there have been many a year that the Astros didn’t collect their 50th win until well into August, seasons in which the club really had no hope of contending for postseason play. But then, we didn’t expect them to, so the few brief and thrilling spurts along the track those seasons were there just to provide glimmers of hope for the future.

The 2003 Houston Astros were supposed to be full of more than just glimmers of hope. The future is this year, right now.

After the disastrous sweep in Pittsburgh over the Fourth of July weekend, Houston was a team that seemed doomed to mediocrity and under-achievement. It was about the third time this season I’ve pretty much resigned myself, and the team, to disappointment. I was not a true believer in the Astros’ chances coming out of spring training, primarily because of what I perceived to be weak links in the defensive, starting pitching and managerial facets of the game.

The defense has been ok, at times both brilliant and embarrassing. And the starting pitching has finally started to come around. It took more than 8,000 pitches for the current quintet to get into a groove, and the injury bug is at least partly to blame for that. But I have a fair amount of faith in an Oswalt-Miller-Robertson-Redding-Villone fivesome. That is if Oswalt is truly healed, Miller comes around, and Robertson can keep his excellent turnaround going.

The manager, well, I’m still not sold on that area. But I will do my best to keep an open mind.

Jeff Kent should return when the team gets back together in Cincinnati after the All-Star Game. That can’t help but make the club better, though it will mean either Geoff Blum or Morgan Ensberg won’t be in the starting lineup. Both have been swinging strong sticks, and you hate to take one of them out of the mix. But you sure can’t leave Kent on the bench. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio have been hitting better lately, and Lance Berkman’s proven he can carry a club for a while. Plus we have a bullpen that may be abused and over-used, but remains one of the best in the game.

The team projects to 86 wins right now, and that actually might be good enough to win the NL Central this campaign. And it’s a team that could easily get hot and win 90+ in the end. I’ve been through a lot of seasons where a .500 record was a pipe dream, and I guess we should all be happy the Astros have any chance at all since there are so many clubs which so often seem to have no chance.

So lean forward and grab the handle in front of you. If the Astros are intent upon taking us for a coaster ride, we might as well sit in the first car and scream our heads off.

WINS & LOSSES: The successful homestand left Houston with a 50-44 record overall and a 1-game lead in the division. The Astros got the week started with a 7-1 triumph over the Reds in Roy Oswalt’s first game back from the DL. Roy O worked the first 6 innings for the win; Geoff Blum had 3 hits and Richard Hidalgo drove in 3 runs.

Seven was actually a lucky number for the Astros in Tuesday’s 6-3 win over Cincy. Tim Redding and four relievers combined to scatter 7 hits, and Houston’s offense wisely used their 7 hits along with 7 walks.

Houston exploded for 6 runs in the first inning of Wednesday’s game, 4 of them on Adam Everett’s first career slam, and the Astros cruised in a 12-2 rout of the Reds. Gregg Zaun, Richard Hidalgo and Lance Berkman also went deep in the game as Jeriome Robertson saw his record improve to 8-3.

And the Astros finished off their first 4-game sweep of the Reds in 32 years with an 11-2 pasting on Thursday that began with a 9-run first inning. Houston parlayed 8 hits, 3 walks and a Cincy fielding gaffe into the 9 opening frame runs that were more than enough to support lefty Ron Villone for the first time since he rejoined the club. Craig Biggio collected the 500th double of his career in the contest.

Houston saw their win streak swell to five games in Friday night’s 4-2 victory over the visiting Pirates. Jeff Bagwell homered and Morgan Ensberg had 3 hits to support Wade Miller and the bullpen.

Pittsburgh came back with a 5-2 win on Saturday to stop the Houston win streak. The Pirates plated 4 in the first inning off Roy Oswalt and Pirates starter Kip Wells, pitching just a few miles NE of his native Missouri City, Texas, kept the Astros hitters at bay.

Houston brought the homestand and the first half of the season to an end on Sunday with a 5-2 victory. Tim Redding pitched 6 scoreless frames in one of his better starts of the year, and Lance Berkman ripped his 17th home run of the year to help the Astros secure Dubya number 50.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: The Astros had a “good news” week on the injury front with the return of Roy Oswalt, Jeff Kent getting his swing back on a rehab assignment and the diagnosis for Rodrigo Rosario not including that dreaded “S Word.”

Oswalt came off his second DL stint of the season with a win on Monday and a tough loss Saturday. The fans in Round Rock got a treat over the weekend with Kent taking some swings while he battles back from wrist tendinitis. He should be back in the lineup for Houston after the break. And Rosario’s MRI came back with good news on his shoulder: No Surgery. He should be back pitching for either Houston or New Orleans before the season is over.

Jose Vizcaino, out since June 24 with a broken bone in his forearm, was checked out this week but is still several a good six weeks away at best from returning.

Rookie shortstop Adam Everett missed Monday’s game after a ball hit him in the head during pregame warm-ups. Everett was taking infield when an errant BP ball caught him on the forehead. Eric Bruntlett replaced Everett in the lineup and popped his first MLB homer. Everett returned to action on Tuesday.

Reliever extraordinaire Octavio Dotel experienced a minor hamstring pull in Monday’s win over the Reds, and it might be something to watch in the early games after the All-Star break. Dotel did return to the mound for in inning in both Friday’s and Sunday’s triumphs, allowing a homer in each game.

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: The Astros finally evened their record on Monday’s and Sunday’s with wins last week. Look for Adam Everett and Lance Berkman, both Aquarius, and Jeff Kent (Pisces) to excel in next Thursday’s game, and that is bad news for our hosts, the Reds. Friday is Richard Hidalgo’s (Cancer) day to shine. Geoff Blum (Taurus) and Billy Wagner (Leo) will find Saturday to their liking. And whoever is catching Sunday’s game, either Brad Ausmus or Gregg Zaun (both Aries), that will be their best day in the coming week.

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

STAR OF THE WEEK: With apologies to Craig Biggio who had a heckuva’ week, my Shooting Star this week goes to right-hander Tim Redding. Tee Red chunked 11-2/3 innings, giving up just two earned runs and 9 hits in two of Houston’s wins this last week. He added 9 strikeouts against just 2 walks, to boot. Biggio batted .367 for the week with 4 multi-hit games, 6 runs and 3 RBI. Two of his 11 hits on the week were two-baggers to give Bidge 500 doubles for his career.

ON DECK: After the 3-day break, Houston will head off on a rather strange, 8-day, 3-city roadtrip that will take them through Cincinnati for four games before passing through Pittsburgh and Milwaukee for two games each. As crazy as the NL Central Division is these days, the Reds, Pirates and Brewers are by no means patsies. But they are a trio of teams the Astros do need to take advantage of and pick up at least five wins in the eight contests.

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