‘Stros enjoying 2-game view

added 9/14/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

For five months they were one of the most frustrating teams to watch. An inconsistent offense matched by an equally erratic starting pitcher corps, only an abused but fantastic bullpen kept the Astros from total oblivion in the National League’s Central Division earlier this summer.

Smart money said the bullpen wouldn’t hold up, Roy Oswalt would never come back soon enough to right the starting rotation, and the offense, well, the offense would just keep dancing to the feast-or-famine tempo the bats have been listening to all season.

The smart money is looking pretty stupid so far in September as Houston is hitting on all cylinders and dancing to a whole new sound.

The Astros wiped away almost all memory of a disappointing 6-6 homestand by ripping off a 7-3 roadtrip that took them through LA, San Diego and Milwaukee. And they followed that with a 3-game sweep of the Cardinals in a quickie homestand that left Houston on top of the division with a 2-game lead over the Cubs and 5½-game lead over the Cardinals.

It’s almost impossible not to get downright giddy about the way the team is playing right now. The starting rotation has Roy O back in the mix and the entire staff combined to limit a powerful St. Louis lineup to just 6 runs in three games. The offense is finally hitting and scoring with regularity and not turning hot-and-cold from game to game. The defense is both steady and spectacular. And the bullpen isn’t worn out from overuse. Yet.

But before we start wondering where the team will hang its fifth NLC flag in the last seven seasons, there’s a little matter of the final 13 games that must be resolved. And the first three of those will be played in Denver against the Rockies where Houston has rarely enjoyed much success. After that comes a 3-game set in St. Louis, and the Cardinals are undoubtedly looking to repay the Astros for the sweep that was pasted on them this weekend in the Bayou City.

There’s no time like the present, it’s been said. And presently the Astros are playing as well as anyone else in the big leagues. Let’s just hope they can keep it going for one more roadtrip and one more homestand.

After that, well, let’s just enjoy the present good fortunes and jump off that postseason bridge when we get to it.

WINS & LOSSES: The Astros got the week rolling by taking three of four in Milwaukee from the Brewers. Houston opened with an 8-4 win on Monday (8 Sep) as the club welcomed Roy Oswalt back from the DL. The Astros scored 3 times in the first inning, thanks largely to a 2-run, 2-out double by Lance Berkman. Jeff Bagwell and Richard Hidalgo later added homers to provide a rusty Roy O with all the support he and the bullpen needed.

Jose Vizcaino’s 3-run, pinch-hit blast in the eighth inning on Tuesday helped the Astros rally for a 7-6 win. Milwaukee led 3-2 and 6-3 before Vizcaino’s homer knotted the score at 6 apiece. Lance Berkman then doubled home Jeff Bagwell in the ninth to end the game’s plate crossings and give Houston the win.

Houston got 3 runs in the first inning on Wednesday, and rookie southpaw Jeriome Robertson made them stand up for a 3-1 Astros triumph. Raul Chavez’ 2-run single capped the Astros’ first-frame offense, and Robertson scattered 6 hits over 6 innings as he watched his record climb to 14-7 on the year. Mike Gallo, Kirk Bullinger and Billy Wagner snuffed the Brewers on a single hit over the final three innings as Houston’s bullpen continued to show off.

Milwaukee spoiled Houston’s plans for a sweep with a 5-3 Brewers win on Thursday to wrap up the series and 10-game roadtrip for the Astros. Scott Podsednik, a leading candidate for NL Rookie of the Year, homered and scored twice to pace Milwaukee on offense while Ben Sheets was his usual dominant self on the mound against the Astros, tossing 8 strong innings to earn the victory.

The Astros came home to Houston for a huge weekend series against NL Central rival St. Louis, and the Good Guys opened it all with a 14-5 whuppin’ on Friday night. Wade Miller was a 1-man wrecking crew on the evening, pitching 6 innings and striking out 5 to up his record to 13-12. Miller also had 2 doubles and drove in 4 runs as he and shortstop Adam Everett combined for 5 hits and 6 RBI in the 8-9 slots of the batting order.

Saturday night belonged to Roy Oswalt as he earned his second win of the week pitching Houston to a 2-0 win in just a little more than two hours. Oswalt kept St. Louis hitters completely off balance the entire game, breaking off 70-MPH curves and firing 95-MPH fastballs over the course of 7 innings. Octavio Dotel looked good in his first game in almost a week after straining a muscle in his backside. And Billy Wagner was his typical man amongst boys in the ninth inning to nail the win down. Jeff Bagwell hammered an oh-two pitch over the fence in right in the fourth to give Roy O and the bullpen all the runs they needed in this express contest.

Houston then wrapped up their week and their mini homestand on Sunday with a 4-1 win to sweep the Cardinals. Tim Redding worked the first 6 innings for Houston in one of his better outings of the season. Redding also contributed a double and a run scored to the offense that was triggered by veteran Craig Biggio’s 3 RBI, including a huge 2-run, 2-out single in the bottom of the Houston fourth after St. Louis had shortened Houston’s lead to 2-1. And from our “2003 Sounds Like A Broken Record” Department, the bullpen trio of Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner worked three scoreless innings to close the win out.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: It was a good week for Houston on the health front. Roy Oswalt returned from his third trip to the DL for groin troubles and picked up a pair of wins. Octavio Dotel, who suffered a slight strain of his gluteus muscle and missed about a week, also returned to action and looked as good as new.

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: Houston ended the week on a high at 81-68, the first time the club has been 13 games above .500 all season. With the Cubs losing Sunday afternoon, that 81-68 record left the Astros with a 2-game lead in the NLC. Brad Lidge (Capricorn) should have his usual great stuff on Tuesday. Those born under the sign Aries should have solid days on Wednesday, so look for Brad Ausmus and Mike Gallo to contribute to an Astros win over the Rockies. Thursday belongs to Jeff Kent (Pisces) and a pair of Virgo’s, Wade Miller and Morgan Ensberg. Billy Wagner (Leo) should enjoy his Friday evening in St. Louis next weekend. Next Saturday will be a good day for Craig Biggio and Octavio Dotel, both Sagittarius, to shine. And next Sunday should produce a lot of nice stats for Jeff Bagwell’s (Gemini) line in the boxscore.

Monday 6-4 . . . Tuesday 14-9 . . . Wednesday 13-10 . . . Thursday 10-12 . . . Friday 15-9 . . . Saturday 11-13 . . . Sunday 12-11

STAR OF THE WEEK: You could practically pull a name from the hat and find a deserving player for this week’s Shooting Star. But the return of Roy Oswalt gets my nod. Roy O picked up a pair of wins during the week, tossing 12 innings and allowing just 4 earned runs (3.00). Oswalt also gave up a paltry 9 hit and no walks in those 12 frames, striking out 12 along the way. Billy Wagner (3 saves) was the leading force out of the bullpen for the week. On offense there was Craig Biggio (.364, 6 RBI), Jeff Bagwell (3 HR, 6 RBI, 6 runs) and Richard Hidalgo (.375, 4 RBI, 10 runs, 2 HR, 3 SB) crowding the list of honorable mentions.

ON DECK: The next-to-last week of the season finds Houston on the road for a pair of 3-game series in Colorado (Tue-Thu) and St. Louis (Fri-Sun). The Astros will then come home for the final week of the regular season campaign where they will face the Giants for a 3-game set and Milwaukee for a 4-game series.

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