added 8/22/2008 by Bob Hulsey
...when your team is out of the playoff chase.
Astros fans have become used to winning baseball. Their teams had records over .500 in nine of the past 11 seasons so Houston fans feel a bit lost when they can't root for a postseason spot deep into September. You want to keep rooting for the Astros but you know most of your friends have moved on to football season. So, as a public service, here's a list of things you can still root for while the Astros play out the season.
* Can the Astros beat the Cardinals?
The Cubs and Brewers appear out of reach, barring a major turn of events, but the Astros just need to run off a winning streak to take third place away from St. Louis. Their last head-to-head meeting will be next weekend during a three-game series at Minute Maid Park. They hoped the eight-game winning streak over the Reds and Giants would have moved them into wild card contention but the Brewers ran off an eight-game streak of their own, blunting the progress Houston hoped to make. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appear to be fading. A good spurt can put them neck and neck.
* Can the Astros stay above .500?
As I write this, Houston is 64-64. This year, there's a Catch-22 with finishing above .500. It's no secret that the Astros are likely to fish in the offseason for a top free agent pitcher - one who will cost them a first-round draft choice if they finish above .500. If they have a losing season, though, the free agent signing won't cost them that draft pick. As GM Ed Wade tries to breathe new life back into the farm system, losing a top draft choice might be a critical loss. If the Astros finish more than one game over the .500 mark this season, they will also bouy Cecil Cooper's major league managerial record to a winning mark.
* Can the Astros finish better than the Texas Rangers?
For some, state bragging rights still matter. 2007 was the first year since 2000 that the Rangers finished with a better record than the Astros. This year, it's a close race as both enter the home stretch right around the .500 mark. While it may mean little to Houston-area or Dallas-area fans, those of us in the middle left to the whims of Fox Sports Southwest as to which game gets shown locally would prefer to have a better record as a talking point when programming battles ensue.
* Will J.R. Towles and Michael Bourn get a chance to shine in September?
Both were disappointing in the first half of the season but both ought to be given extended looks in September to gain some confidence for 2009. If they are truly thought to be the future of the franchise, the Astros need to let them sink or swim in September.
* Will Jose Valverde win the N.L. saves title?
Papa Grande won the crown last year while with the Diamondbacks. He's just one off the pace of San Francisco's Brian Wilson in 2008. He's also just one ahead former Astro Brad Lidge in what looks like a three-way race. The Astros have not had a league saves champion since 1969, the first year the statistic was officially recognized. Of course, if you are thinking ahead to next year's salary arbitration, you may not want Valverde to have that bargaining chip.
* Will Lance Berkman take the team's RBI crown?
Berkman needs 11 more RBIs to reach 100 for the sixth time in his career. Berkman also needs eight home runs to overtake Craig Biggio for second all-time in franchise history (292) behind Jeff Bagwell (449).
* Will there be a farewell tour for Brad Ausmus?
The longtime catcher is likely to retire at the end of the season. As a twist to Craig Biggio's farewell, perhaps Ausmus will play a game at second base to close his career. If none of those issues appeal to you, perhaps you can get wrapped up the remaining pennant races, particularly the low-budget Rays, Marlins, Brewers and Twins. Or maybe you want to see if the Cubs end a century of futility. Or maybe you just enjoy watching the Yankees and Red Sox getting their egos cut down a tad. Or, at the very least, you can keep the vendors company and attend the games in person.