Astros Winning With Pitching, Small Ball

added 4/26/2010 by Bob Hulsey

After commemorating the 1965 Astros to start the season, the 2010 version has been imitating the 1979 Astros to get back into the Central Division race. After the 0-8 disaster to begin the season, Houston has reeled off eight wins out of their next ten to claim a tie for third place with Milwaukee and sit a mere three games behind front-running St. Louis after Sunday's action.

Sunday's 10-3 victory over Pittsburgh was, in many ways, an aberration to what got them there. The big hitters of Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Hunter Pence and Pedro Feliz had seven hits and drove in six of Houston's runs. That's been a week's worth for them lately. While Berkman spent two weeks on the disabled list, Lee (.162, no homers, five RBIs through Sunday) and Pence (.209, one homer, five RBIs) have been practically AWOL the first three weeks. Feliz (.262, one homer, ten RBIs) has given more of what was expected of him but the rest of the lineup has had to scratch and claw for runs to get back in the race.

The Astros have been winning with solid starting pitching and a lot of small ball in hopes of scoring just enough to outlast their opponents.

Jeff Keppinger (.308, seven RBIs) seems to be somewhere around every April rally while Geoff Blum (.294) and Jason Michaels (.250, a team-high two homers) have had some clutch hits in the comeback. Michael Bourn (.328, .406 on base pct., eight steals) has set the table for several runs and seems to be embellishing both his Astros MVP honor from 2009 and also his 2009 Gold Glove award in the outfield.

The true gem of the Astros has been their pitchers. The offense is dead last in run support for starting pitching. The team ERA is a modest 3.99 through Saturday but a closer look shows what a great job their starters have done all season.

The modern use of the term "quality start" means the pitcher gave up three runs or less and completed six innings. However, he can lose that stat if he comes back out for the seventh or later and gets roughed up. The Astros have had 12 quality starts in 18 games if you only judge them on the first six innings. If the bats can put some runs on the board and if the bullpen can hold up for the last three innings, the trend is that the Astros can win the game. Either way, they are "in it" almost every time out until the seventh inning.

That's where Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom have stepped up during this ten-game streak. Lindstrom, in particular, is 6-for-6 in save opportunities and had not walked a batter all season until Saturday night with two men out.

Lindstrom has impressed me ever since he came here from Florida in the off-season. Ignore for a moment the 3.00 ERA and .270 opponents batting average. Focus on the 10-to-1 K/BB ratio and the zero blown saves. I love the fact that he not only can bring heat close to 100 mph but he likes to get those saves without the drama fans lived through with recent closers. When he's been hit, it was either when the game wasn't on the line or when he had a cushion to work with. It's too early to know if this trend will continue all season but I like what I've seen so far. If Lindstrom has the nails to handle the pressure of closing, Ed Wade got a steal.

Don't mistake the 2010 Astros rotation for the 1965 Dodgers or the 1990s Braves. They aren't that good. But they've been the lifeblood that has kept the Astros from being in the same boat as the league's weak sisters and, in this lackluster division, that just might be enough.

Brad Mills has made one major change from the gameday managerial plan of Cecil Cooper. Mills is willing to play for a run. Under Cooper, we too often got a leadoff man to second and then stranded him. Under Mills, we are trying to steal bases, bunt runners over and plate them with a ground out or a sacrifice fly. Some folks in the SABR crowd absolutely hate this approach and claim it is a losing philosophy when you run all the numbers. But Mills realizes he's been getting nothing from the heart of the order and he has let the other hitters scrap for runs and then ask his pitchers to keep them in games.

If Sunday's game is a sign the big boppers are back, maybe he'll play for the big inning more often but Mills is showing me he is flexible enough to win with what he has available. Neither approach will work every time and it will leave a manager open to second-guessing. So far, most of Mills' moves have been the right ones.

Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. It's just April. It should be noted those 1965 Astros had not one but two ten-game winning streaks and the 1979 Astros led by ten games and then faded down the stretch. There's still a lot of variables that need to be played out but one thing is certain - winning is a lot more fun than losing and I wasn't sure we’d be able to play for anything meaningful after the 0-8 opening.

Looks like the Astros can stay in the race if the starting pitching holds up and the bats can scratch out enough wins. It's fun to contemplate even if there is much left to happen.