Watching the wheels come off

added 9/28/2003 by Willie B. Lakey

In the end it would’ve been much easier to be a fan of the Detroit Tigers this year than to be a Houston Astros fan. Then again, the same could be said for each of the last 42 seasons I’ve been cheering for Houston’s entry in the National League. And while I wouldn’t want to have a 119-loss season to live with all summer like Tigers fans, at least they have a couple of World Series titles in ’68 and ’84 to help keep them warm this winter.

Houston’s 2003 season came to an end this week with a resounding thud as the team fell back into the muck and mire of mediocrity and under-achievement they wallowed in most of the campaign. Faced with must-win games against one of the best teams in baseball and one of the worst, the Astros proved they don’t discriminate against any team and came up short against both the Giants and the Brewers.

Having written this team off several times during the season, including picking them third in the division coming out of Spring Training, I tried to fake myself out earlier in September when Houston was playing as well as any team in the majors. Perhaps, I thought, my cynicism and pessimism was finally going to catch up to me and the Astros were going to make me look foolish as they found an extra gear coming down the stretch. With Roy Oswalt back in the rotation, the bullpen continuing its unbelievable job despite the extra strain they performed under all season, and the offense finally starting to click consistently, the Astros surely looked like the club to beat in the NL Central as so many had predicted back in the spring.

But then the wheels just came off and the team’s push for its fifth NLC title in the last seven seasons came to a screeching halt.

With a race as close as it was in the end it’s easy, maybe too easy, to look back and point to one game or a series as the turning point. It could be the 4-9 roadtrip back in April that included a 1-3 stop in Milwaukee. The 1-0, 16-inning defeat at Wrigley on the final day of May was huge since that would mean a 2-game swing with the Cubs. Maybe it was the 1-5 swing through Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park in June, a painful roadtrip that was partially hidden by the fact their lone win was a 6-pitcher no-hitter in the Bronx. Dropping four of six to the lowly Mets never sat well with me. The 6-6 homestand in August, that included a 2-4 mark against the Reds and Padres, didn’t help matters. The 4-game skid against the Cardinals and Giants in the last week or so also hurt. And the losses to Milwaukee in the season’s final series put an exclamation point on them all.

But in the end it was Houston’s inability to really challenge the better teams in the game this year that will cost them. The Astros faced six of the eight teams heading to the playoffs this season and came away with a winning record against just one of them, the Florida Marlins. Houston was 2-4 against the Braves, 2-4 against the Giants, 1-2 against Yankees, 0-3 versus the Red Sox and 7-9 in their head-to-head meetings with the Cubs. A 5-1 mark against the Marlins gives Houston a 17-23 record against teams heading to postseason play.

So in the end, perhaps the collapse during the final week saved us all from certain disappointment in the playoffs. But that sure doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

You’d think after 42 years of similar discontent and frustration would have hardened yours truly and the thousands of Astros fans just like me who find themselves sitting on the side of the road wondering how we’re going to get the wheels back on their axles. But it hasn’t, and come next spring when a few new tires are in place and we’ve all had the winter to tune ourselves up again, we’ll be out there with our hearts racing as the team drives us towards what we all hope is an Astros season with a checkered flag ending.

WINS & LOSSES: Houston opened the week on Monday faced with needing a win to maintain sole possession of first place in the NL Central. Instead, it was one of their most frustrating losses of the season as they coughed up a 6-3 defeat at the hands of the Giants. The Astros clawed back from a 2-0 deficit to take a 3-2 lead after four innings, Richard Hidalgo’s fourth triple of the year playing a key role in the early rally. But with rookie San Fran hurler Jerome Williams on the ropes in the fifth, Lance Berkman was caught looking with the sacks full and Hidalgo popped up to end a chance to put the game away. Brad Lidge and Octavio Dotel, stalwarts out of the pen all year, then combined on four consecutive walks in the top of the seventh as the Giants tied it, and Pedro Feliz and Ray Durham took Billy Wagner deep back-to-back in the top of the ninth to win it for San Francisco.

Tuesday’s game wasn’t too bad, as long as you don’t look at the 10-run second inning the Giants pasted on the board en route to a 10-3 win. Edgardo Alfonzo’s grand slam capped the inning and, for all intents and purposes, Houston’s season as they fell out of first place all together coupled with the Cubs’ victory.

The Astros managed to pull out a 2-1 win in Wednesday afternoon’s series finale with the Giants as Roy Oswalt once again showed how much the club missed him during his three trips to the DL this season. Pedro Feliz homered once again for San Francisco to give the Giants an early 1-0 lead. But Roy O would surrender no more and Jose Vizcaino’s pinch-hit, 2-run single in the seventh kept Oswalt’s fine effort from being for naught.

The Astros moved back into a tie with the Cubs on Thursday with a 6-1 win in the series opener against the Brewers. Craig Biggio’s leadoff homer, his NL-record 34th of his career, started the victory off for Houston, and Tim Redding got help from a trio of Houston relievers to close it out and push Houston back into a deadlock atop the NLC with Chicago who dropped 9-7 decision to the Reds.

Things started bad for Houston Friday night, and then they got worse as Milwaukee cruised to a 12-5 win amidst Astros mistakes in the field. Rookie lefty Jeriome Robertson never made it out of the first inning, partly because of his pitching and partly due to his fielding, and the Brewers got out to a 3-0 lead. But it was a 6-run, 2-error, 2-walk second inning that nailed Houston’s coffin shut in this one. By the time Milwaukee came to bat in the top of the third they had a 9-4 lead, manager Jimy Williams was on his fourth pitcher, and Houston fans had seen just about enough as some of us started the hot stove league a little earlier than we’d hoped when we entered the gates.

Rookie Scott Podsednik, the likely NL Rookie of the Year, was Houston’s Achilles on Saturday as the Brewers officially put Houston to bed for the winter with a 5-2 win. Podsednik had a pair of doubles and a triple, driving in three Milwaukee runs, and when the Cubs swept a doubleheader from the Pirates in Wrigley, the NL Central flag belonged to Chicago for the first time.

Houston ended the season on a winning note with an 8-5 win over Milwaukee on Sunday. Jeff Bagwell homered twice to lead a 4-HR barrage for the Astros as the two teams emptied their benches and combined to use 38 different players.

BUMPS, BRUISES & BREAKS: The only health problems heading into the offseason are all the broken hearts the Astros left behind them in their final week collapse. Most of those hearts are scarred and toughened from previous disappointments, and they should be healed and ready for more baseball by next spring.

DAY-BY-DAY ASTRO-LOGY: Houston ended the season 87-75 and in second place in the NL Central, just a single game behind the blasted Cubbies. And no amount of astrological tinkering can ever change that.

Monday 6-5 . . . Tuesday 15-10 . . . Wednesday 14-11 . . . Thursday 12-12 . . . Friday 16-10 . . . Saturday 11-15 . . . Sunday 13-12

STAR OF THE WEEK: This week’s Shooting Star goes to the 212,584 fans that turned out for the final seven home games of the season. Chided by players, coaches and the media for allegedly cheering and booing at the wrong times, these were just some of the fans who helped turn around what were below par gate totals earlier this season. Through the first 41 games of the season, the average was 28,248 turnstile clicks. At the end the average was over 30K. An increase of about 2,000 fans per game over the final 40 home dates is huge, and in the end it’s only a decline of a little more than 3% from attendance in 2002. Gee, I wonder how that compares with increases in ticket and concession prices over the same period? Since I was at Friday night’s game myself, making the 400-mile roundtrip to do so, I’ll gladly accept this week’s honor on behalf of the rest of the fans!

ON DECK: Expect a shakeup in the organization, either in the dugout, front office, or both following this season’s showing. Pitchers and catchers will report around Valentine’s Day, roughly 20 weeks from now.

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