added 8/10/2009 by Bob Hulsey
Two weeks ago, I told you to circle August 10th on your calendar. By then, I said, you'd know if it was safe to jump on the Astros' bandwagon for the stretch run.
The verdict: No, don't hop on yet. But if you are already on, it's not quite time to jump off either.
The Astros' entered a two-week stretch of critical head-to-head games against the teams they needed to catch to make a run for the playoffs. Not only did they finish 5-8 during that stretch, they let a close deficit become a large one. Often times, they looked positively dreadful in their losses.
Oh, yes, there were injuries. Lance Berkman didn't play at all. LaTroy Hawkins and Doug Brocail landed on the disabled list. Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt missed time with lesser injuries, as did Michael Bourn. Maybe the Astros should think about changing their colors to black and blue.
There are 51 games and eight weeks to go in the regular season, enough time to make a spurt and crash the playoffs but they will have to do something they haven't done all year - dominate. Heck, even the lowly Nationals have won eight in a row so it can be done. The question is whether the Astros can do the same.
In 2004, they took off on the sort of run they will need to reproduce this year. Back then, they had only two good starting pitchers - Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. They had to depend on the offense to win the other three starts in the rotation.
This year, they might just have three dependable starters if Oswalt and Rodriguez can stay healthy and Bud Norris continues to pitch well. Brian Moehler is a 50-50 proposition every time out.
Mike Hampton is listed as day-to-day after a knee injury on Saturday. My advice would be to either put him on the disabled list or move him to the bullpen. He was barely passable with two good knees. Why expect anything better from him with a hurt one? Give Yorman Bazardo the ball and hope Saturday's one-inning relief stint was just a hiccup caused by being thrust into a game he wasn't prepared for.
With Hampton, you know what you're going to get which is below average (ERA+ of 79 where 100 is league average). Bazardo may be great, terrible or somewhere in between but, now that he's been promoted and will probably be in Houston the rest of the season, it makes a lot of sense to find out what he's got. It's not like he's taking Cy Young's spot in the rotation anyway.
The 2004 run was aided largely by the explosive bats of Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell. A lineup of Berkman, Carlos Lee, Miguel Tejada and Hunter Pence can go on a similar tear if they can just all hit at the same time and rediscover how to get a clutch RBI.
The trade deadline came and went without a deal. The August waiver trade period will likely end the same. But the Astros are still capable of making a run if the bats come alive in the clutch and they get better starting pitching.
The Astros have recently pulled this sort of thing off so many times in August and September that it is hard to give up on the 2009 model yet. The trouble is that they are running out of time and they have yet to put together a long winning streak all season which makes it a bit suspect to believe they have it in them.
Houston is six games out of both the NL Central and the Wild Card race going into their four-game series in Florida. In the Central, they trail St. Louis by five games in the loss column and will need to fend off three other teams. In the Wild Card, the deficit is six in the loss column and they will need to overtake six other teams to make it. Those aren't particularly good odds.
There are still reasons to watch the Astros and not emotionally quit on them. But it is "put up or shut up" time. They need to get hot and it needs to start now.