Astros hope to knuckle under

added 8/3/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

February and the start of spring training seems like a long time ago right now. When the Houston Astros entered camp, the first four arms in their starting rotation appeared set. Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller would lead the way followed by Shane Reynolds and Brian Moehler, one of the acquisitions GM Gerry Hunsicker made in the offseason.

The #5 battle was supposed to be between youngsters Tim Redding, Jeriome Robertson and Jared Fernandez, another pickup Hunsicker made that barely caused a ripple in the transaction wire.

I’m guessing that also seems like a long time ago to Fernandez who finally got his first start in an Astros uniform Sunday. You really couldn’t have picked a more inopportune time for Fernandez’ knuckler to make its debut since he would be facing a Marlins team that likes to run. It’s hard enough for anyone, and Brad Ausmus is one of the best, to throw out Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Derrek Lee and Juan Encarnacion when the pitcher is chunkin’ fastballs. Trying to catch the dancing knuckler and throw them out stealing increases the difficulty factor by at least 10.

And with Florida’s speed adding to the pressure of his first start of the year, Fernandez also was pitching for a club that was clinging to a 1-game lead in the NL Central Division.

Jared came through with flying colors, and how ironic would it be if his knuckler played a key role in the Astros dancing to their fifth division flag in seven seasons?

In his 20th big league game Fernandez got 16 outs in just under 80 pitches before turning things over to the best bullpen in baseball to finish off the Marlins and give the Astros a 3-3 split on their 6-game trip through Atlanta and Florida. The win is only the second in Fernandez’ short major league career, the other coming last year when he was with the Reds. Houston was his victim.

I made Fernandez my dark horse pick back in February to claim the #5 starter’s job. Conventional wisdom said it would be Redding, who had more experience in Houston, or Robertson, since every staff needs a lefty. I envisioned Fernandez’ knuckleball chewing up innings in that #5 role. With Burt Hooton for a pitching coach, I foresaw Fernandez’ knuckler improving throughout the year.

Plus I just like knuckleball pitchers. I still have visions of Joe Niekro throwing his for 9 or 10 innings at a time, and doing so every four days. What can I say? I just love watching the knuckleball.

I probably let my visions get in the way of some common sense. Both Robertson and Redding put together solid springs while Fernandez nursed a sore back and saw almost no action before he was ticketed to Triple-A New Orleans where he’s been ever since.

The emergence of both Robertson and Redding during the spring cost Reynolds a place in the rotation eventually as the cold, hard facts of baseball’s business came into play. Then Moehler went down with a season-ending arm injury. Roy O is now on the DL for a third time with his recurring groin injury. And Miller never has gotten into any groove at all, something the team desperately needs for him to do in an effort to pick up the staff a little.

We’ve experienced the growing pains of both Robertson and Redding. Less than two weeks ago Redding looked like his hold on a starter’s job was tenuous at best while Robertson was pitching lights out. Now Robertson is struggling to and Redding is hot.

And there are going to be days that the knuckleball doesn’t knuckle for Fernandez.

But it really wasn’t that long ago that all three of them were supposed to just battle for the #5 spot in the order. Now they’re in the 3-4-5 slots and, like it or not, those three young arms are going to play a key role in Houston’s postseason run the next eight weeks.

Miller’s ineffectiveness right now leaves me wondering if he’s in the top 4 at all. As set as the quartet of Oswalt, Miller, Reynolds and Moehler seemed back in February, the Big 4 for the team heading down the stretch looks like Robertson, Redding, Fernandez and Ron Villone.

An unlikely foursome, indeed. But stranger things have happened, especially in baseball.

WINS & LOSSES: The week couldn’t have started any worse for Houston as they dropped a 6-3 decision in Atlanta on Tuesday that proved a double loss when Roy Oswalt ended up on the DL for a third time this season. Houston had a 1-0 lead before Oswalt yielded a homer to Braves starter Russ Ortiz leading off the 3rd inning. That would be all for Oswalt who re-injured his groin and left the game after that pitch. A red-hot Marcus Giles continued his streak with a 5-for-5 evening, and Gary Sheffield’s 2-run homer in the 6th off reliever Ricky Stone gave Atlanta the lead once and for all.

Houston managed to come back on Wednesday with a tough 7-3 win over the Braves. Adam Everett had a key 2-run single in a 4-run Astros 1st inning, and the club held on for the win despite a wild night from starter Ron Villone who issued 6 walks in his 5 innings of work.

Former Astro Shane Reynolds brought the Braves right back in Thursday’s series finale, a 7-4 Atlanta win. The Braves gave Reynolds a huge 6-run lead in the 1st inning as Atlanta pounded Houston starter Wade Miller. An error by Orlando Merced didn’t help things, but it was Javy Lopez’ crushing 3-run homer off Miller that proved fatal. Reynolds held the Astros to 6 hits over 7 innings, with all 4 Houston runs driven in courtesy of Jeff Bagwell’s bat. The game was also the last for right-hander Pete Munro who was designated for assignment after the game in order to make room for newly acquired Dan Miceli.

Houston traveled to Florida next and used a blast and a balk to pickup a 2-1 win over the Marlins on Friday. Jeff Kent took Florida starter Josh Beckett deep in the 2nd inning, and Jeff Bagwell tripled and scored on a Beckett balk in the 4th. Houston starter Tim Redding hurled his 2nd-straight solid start, allowing just 6 hits and a walk in his 7 innings before Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner sealed it.

Florida got to Astros lefty Jeriome Robertson early in Saturday’s game before settling for a 5-2 win. Mike Lowell’s 30th HR of the year was a deadly 3-run blast in the 1st inning off Robertson who suffered his second bad outing in as many starts. Lowell also stole a base later in the game and Pudge Rodriguez contributed 2 singles, a double and a base theft to Florida’s attack. Meanwhile, Houston could manage but 3 hits off Carl Pavano and a trio of Marlins relievers.

Sunday saw a nice 2003 debut by knuckler Jared Fernandez as he combined with the bullpen’s Big 3 to pitch Houston past Florida 3-1. Orlando Merced’s home run snapped a 1-1 tie in the 3rd inning. Fernandez got out of a jam in the 1st inning and let his floater frustrate Marlins batters for the first 16 outs. Brad Lidge completed the 6th and 7th innings while Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner finished off the 5-hitter in the 8th and 9th.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: As mentioned, Roy Oswalt’s third trip to the DL with a groin injury was the week’s worst news. The good news is the MRI only showed inflammation; the bad news is that doesn’t mean surgery will be ruled out.

Lance Berkman also missed a couple of games in Atlanta with a sore and tender right knee. Carlos Hernandez through off a mound for the first time this week and reported no trouble as he continues to recover from major shoulder surgery.

And rookie righty Rodrigo Rosario finally had to succumb to the surgeon’s knife. Rosario was operated on Friday in Ft. Worth with both Astros team medical director Dr. David Lintner and Texas Rangers team physician Dr. John Conway on hand to repair a partially torn biceps tendon and a slight tear of the right rotator cuff. Assuming all goes well now, Rosario should be just about as good as new come spring training next February.

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: Oswalt’s injury and the trading deadline prompted a pair of roster moves this week. On Tuesday the Astros acquired right-handed reliever Dan Miceli from the Yankees for the old player-to-be-named-later and/or cash. Miceli was added to the 40-man roster and that meant the club had to designate right-hander Pete Munro for assignment. Shame to see Munro forced out, but such is the business of baseball.

Jared Fernandez was promoted from Triple-A New Orleans on Friday to take Roy Oswalt’s place in the rotation.

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: Houston ended the first 111 games on their schedule with 60 wins, 51 losses and a 2-game lead in the NL Central. This Tuesday should be a good day for Octavio Dotel (Sagittarius) and Billy Wagner (Leo). Of course, what days aren’t good for them? Jeff Kent (Pisces) and Richard Hidalgo (Cancer) should fuel the offense on Wednesday. Thursday will see Morgan Ensberg (Virgo) and Jeff Bagwell (Gemini) posting strong line scores. Brad Lidge (Capricorn) is due for a good relief appearance on Friday. And the weekend belongs to Adam Everett and Lance Berkman, as both Saturday and Sunday look good for those born under Aquarius.

Monday 3-4 . . . Tuesday 11-6 . . . Wednesday 9-8 . . . Thursday 9-8 . . . Friday 12-6 . . . Saturday 7-11 . . . Sunday 9-8

STAR OF THE WEEK: While Jeff Bagwell was much of the sluggish Astros offense this last week, my Shooting Star goes to the 3-headed bullpen monster named Billy Brad Dotel. The trio of Wagner, Lidge and Dotel combined for eight relief appearances in the six games, tossing 9-2/3 innings and allowing just 1 run, 7 hits, 3 walks and striking out 12. It’s really nothing short of amazing what the entire relief corps has done so far this season.

ON DECK: The Astros return from their roadtrip and get Monday off to rest up. Then it’s right back to work with a 6-game homestand against the Mets (Tue-Thu) and Expos (Fri-Sun). It would be a very good time to take at least 4 out of 6 of these games since the club heads out on the road to Chicago and Cincinnati after that.

Send this story to a friend