‘Stros split first half of homestand

added 8/24/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

I believe even Job would have a hard time maintaining his patience with this year’s Astros. At the very least, Houston’s offense would be a stern test.

No matter who wins the NL Central this year, be it Houston, St. Louis or Chicago, their fans are already battle-tested for the emotional rides that the playoffs can bring. Despite the less than stellar W-L records all three teams are sporting at or near the top of the NLC, fans of the Astros, Cardinals and Cubs sure can’t argue with the excitement. And if the good and gracious baseball gods eventually concede the race to the Astros, Houston fans will be double tough as we’ve gone through this year’s ups and downs not only in the standings, but with our offense as well.

If you break Houston’s game on the field down into four categories – Offense, Starting Pitching, Relief Pitching and Defense – the offense has been the least consistent to date. The bullpen has been the team’s dominant feature from the start, and the defense has been better than I expected when the team came out of spring training.

Starting pitching has been a problem, but it has been far more consistent than the offense. Since hitters are streaky as individuals, it’s really no surprise for the bats as a group to be hot and cold. But this year’s Houston lineup seems to be going above and beyond the usual. Instead of being streaky in stretches of games, the 2003 Astros are streaky from game to game, and even within a game.

The Astros busted out the whippin’ sticks on Tuesday and Thursday against the Cubs who started Matt Clement and Kerry Wood in those games. In between, Mark Prior snuffed the bats almost entirely. The attack then sputtered on Friday, banging out a normally acceptable 9 hits but failing to come up with the big hit and dropping the contest.

Saturday’s 5-hit effort was in many ways more impotent and sad than the 4 hits Houston eventually tallied off Prior on Tuesday. After chasing him in the first inning of his previous start in the Bayou City, the Astros let Paul Wilson and a pair of Reds relievers drop another "L" on the Houston ledger.

Sunday saw the club close the week with 11 hits at the plate in a winning effort that helped Houston avoid being swept by the Reds and gave the Astros a 3-3 split for the week.

Houston’s offense is about as healthy as they could hope to be at this stage of the season. Unlike the starting pitching that can point to Roy Oswalt’s recurring injury, preseason surgery for Carlos Hernandez, and the fact both Jeriome Robertson and Tim Redding are in their first full seasons as major league starting pitchers, the Astros’ offense really has no excuse for their recent inconsistencies.

By the way, my favorite is "feast or famine." When In doubt, I always go for the cliché that has something to do with food.

WINS & LOSSES: With the Cubs in town for a big 3-game series, Houston got off to a good start with a 12-8 win in a slugfest on Tuesday. Chicago looked to be in charge when they took a 3-0 lead in the top of the 1st on the strength of a 3-run bomb by Aramis Ramirez. But Houston wiped that out with a 4-run initial frame. Chicago went back in front 5-4 but a Jeff Kent 3-run homer in the 4th put the Astros back out in front to stay. Kent also had a single and double on the evening, and drove in half of Houston’s dozen tallies.

All that offense went back to sleep on Wednesday and Chicago’s Mark Prior flirted with a no-hitter before the Cubs eventually came away with a 6-0 win. The big Cubs right-hander didn’t allow Houston a hit until Adam Everett’s leadoff double in the 6th. He would leave after 7 innings having given up just 4 hits and striking out 9. Aramis Ramirez homered once again for the Cubs to give Prior all the runs he needed early on. Randall Simon’s 3-run blast in the 6th accented the win for the Cubs.

The offense reappeared Thursday in the series finale, and Ron Villone topped longtime Chicago nemesis Kerry Wood in a 9-3 Houston triumph. The Astros slapped 12 hits in the first 5 innings off Wood and the Cubs’ first reliever, former Astro Dave Veres. Jeff Bagwell and Geoff Blum each contributed 3 hits to an attack that eventually produced 16 hits for the evening. Villone worked the first 5 innings, allowing just 3 hits. Rick White and Dan Miceli mopped up out of the pen with 2 innings each.

The Cincinnati Reds came to town for the weekend and pulled out a 4-3 win in Friday’s series opener. Houston missed one opportunity after another in the game, eventually leaving 11 runners on base including the bases full in the 8th and the tying run on second in the 9th. Wade Miller started for Houston and gave up just 5 hits with no walks and 7 Ks in his 7 innings of work to be the hard-luck loser.

Houston’s offense was a no-show once again on Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Reds that dropped the Astros into a 1st-place tie with the Cardinals in the NL Central. Paul Wilson, whom the Astros pounded the last time he started in Houston, gave up just 5 hits and 1 run in his 7 innings on the mound for the Reds, getting no-hit relief help from Felix Heredia and Chris Reitsma in the 8th and 9th to seal the deal for Cincy. The top four hitters in Houston’s lineup – Biggio, Berkman, Bagwell and Kent – were a combined 0-for-16 in the game.

The Astros avoided a sweep on Sunday when they pulled away from the Reds for a 6-3 win. Jeriome Robertson struggled a bit with his control and walked 5 in his 7 IP, but was still good enough to pick up his club-leading 12th win on the season. Richard Hidalgo homered as part of a 3-hit afternoon, and drove in half of Houston’s 6 runs. Jason Lane also went deep in the game for Houston.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: Still no word on when Roy Oswalt might be able to return to action. The right-hander continues to work and rest in hopes of returning to the club after his third trip to the DL this season for the same groin injury. Oswalt threw on the side Friday before the series opener with the Reds and reported no trouble throwing at about "85%-90%." He will reportedly throw again on Tuesday and at least once more next weekend before the club departs on a long and important 11-day, 10-game roadtrip.

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: It was a fairly active week for the Astros with three roster transactions, including the shock if seeing backup catcher Gregg Zaun given his unconditional release. Zaun’s struggles at the plate cost him, and Raul Chavez was called up from Triple-A New Orleans to take his place on the roster.

Houston also called up outfielder Jason Lane, optioning Colin Porter back to New Orleans. And infielder Jose Vizcaino was activated from the DL with Eric Bruntlett sent back down.

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: The Astros ended the week 68-62 on the season. With just 32 games remaining on their schedule, Houston is deadlocked with St. Louis atop the NLC with Chicago just ½-1½ out depending on the outcome of their game that started later Sunday afternoon. Jeff Bagwell (Gemini) is our best bet to get the Dodgers series off to a good start on Tuesday. Look for strange happenings Wednesday due to the new moon. Brad Ausmus (Aries) should continue his recent surge in the batting average department on Thursday. Friday will find a pair of Virgo’s, Morgan Ensberg and Wade Miller, enjoying excellent evenings to open the Padres series. Geoff Blum (Taurus) should enjoy his Saturday. And Sunday should belong to both Richard Hidalgo (Cancer) and Billy Wagner (Leo).

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

STAR OF THE WEEK: For the second time in three weeks, my Shooting Star goes to Richard Hidalgo. The Astros’ RF batted .429 for the week (9-for-21) with 5 RBI, 7 runs scored, a homer, a triple and four doubles. Hidalgo also recorded his NL-leading 20th outfield assist in Houston’s 6-3 win on Sunday. Doggie leads the club with a .308 batting average and 56 extra base hits, chipping in 69 RBI and 67 runs scored to boot.

ON DECK: Houston will take Monday off before concluding the long homestand with three games each versus the Dodgers (Tue-Thu) and Padres (Fri-Sun) to bring August to a close. The Astros begin September on the West Coast for a pair of 3-game sets in Los Angeles (Sep 1-3) and San Diego (Sep 5-7). Houston will then have a 4-game series in Milwaukee (Sep 8-11) before coming home for what could be an enormous 3-game mini-homestand with the Cardinals (Sep 12-14).

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