The Astros are poised for another
late-season playoff run
By Adam Hoff
Billy Beane took over as GM in Oakland, the A’s have been considered the
masters of the second half. In 2000
the A’s went 21-7 in September to snag the AL Wild Card. In 2001 they went a ridiculous 64-19
after July 1st and won the AL West.
In 2002 it was a 42-12 August/September, complete with a 20-game winning
streak. So it is no surprise -
despite a modest close to 2003 and a September collapse (12-16) last year - that
when the A’s won 27 of 38 games heading into the break to climb back into the
picture, people started getting excited.
Not only that, Oakland has won its first two games coming out of the
All-Star games behind gems from Rich Harden and Barry Zito. Bobby Crosby is healthy and hitting,
Eric Chavez is heating up, the bullpen is full of young studs, and Danny Haren
is teaming with Harden (an absolute beast) and a reinvigorated Zito to form a
new Big Three in the starting rotation.
of this, I still say that the A’s are the wrong team to focus on this year when
it comes to second half charges.
When you consider that they are 7.5 games out in the West and behind five
teams (including perennial playoff teams in the Twins and Yankees) in the Wild
Card, it is going to be difficult to vault into the playoff picture. In fact, I think the young A’s will fade
late and chalk this season up to a great learning experience; something to build
on for the future.
which means that the Houston Astros are the new Kings of Comeback. After going 23-7 in their final 30 games
a year ago to cruise all the way to Game Seven of the NLCS, the ‘Stros are
making yet another charge after being left for dead. Granted, things are different this time
around. Last year, the Astros had
lofty expectations after the acquisitions of Roger Clemens and Andy
Pettitte. They had World Series
aspirations that went into the toilet after losing months in June and July left
them at .500 for the year and seemingly out of contention. But then they traded for Carlos Beltran,
inserted Brad Lidge as an unhittable closer, adopted the gritty style of new
manager Phil Garner, and rode Clemens and Roy Oswalt into the playoffs, going
40-18 after August 1. This time
around, the expectations were lower after losing Beltran, so no one was
surprised to see Houston sitting at 15-30 with virtually no
hope. In fact, the only thing the
Astros were known for at that point was their ridiculously low run support for
the ageless Roger Clemens.
suddenly, my buddy Juice was telling me to “watch out for the ‘Stros!” He was scheduling his weekends around
Astros games and sporting his lucky hat and jersey combo. In short, he was feeling the magic. And I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really
noticed what was happening in that weird little ballpark. So when I started looking closer, it
surprised me to find that Houston had gone 29-13 during their final 42
games leading into the break. Just
as the A’s had found their stride, so too had the Astros. Unfortunately for Juice and other ‘Stros
diehards, Houston suffered a crushing loss last night in St. Louis, when Albert
Pujols wiped away a 3-2 13th inning deficit with a two-run, game-winning home
run. The brutal defeat sent the
Astros back to .500 and needing to win one of the next two with Oswalt and Clemens on
the mound (facing Marquis and Carpenter, respectively).
of what happened last night, the Astros are still my pick to win the NL Wild
Card. While, unlike the A’s, the
Astros have no chance to win their division (the Cardinals are like a machine),
and while they do trail four teams in the wild card standings, they have three
distinct advantages over Oakland.
1. The National League East. For Oakland to win the wild card in the American League, they
will have to leapfrog divisional rival Texas,
hope that Baltimore and New York cancel each
other out, AND count on the AL Central to beat each other up and keep either the
Twins or Indians from getting hot.
That is a lot to ask. The
Astros, on the other hand, are preceded in the standings only by divisional
rival Chicago (who they own) and then a bunch of NL East teams (Atlanta, Florida, and
Philly, with the Mets right behind Houston).
There is no way that an entire division will finish in front of the
Astros if they keep playing well the rest of the way. It’s impossible. Therefore, we can knock two teams out of
the way, just because of that fact, leaving Houston to compete with the Cubs and the NL
East runner-up for the prized Wild Card spot. Those sound like much better odds to
me. Throw in the fact that the NL
East has so much parity and that the Cubs are the biggest chokers in baseball
and you can feel pretty confident saying that neither of those entities will win
more than 92 games. If Houston can go 48-26 (a
.649 winning percentage) the rest of the way and get to 93 wins, you have to
like their chances. Considering
they are winning at a .674 clip since May 24, it is not a stretch to pencil in
those 93 wins as a reasonable projection.
2. Veteran Pitching. The similarities between Oakland and Houston are pretty astounding. Both had sputtering offenses
jump-started by a slugging third baseman (Chavez and Ensberg) and the return of
a key injured player (Crosby and Berkman), both have had payroll difficulties
that forced them to lose important players in the offseason (Hudson/Mulder and
Beltran), and both have had key players go down for the remainder of the season
(Dotel and Bagwell). And while both
teams win with pitching, the respective staffs are the biggest separator of the
two clubs. The A’s have young arms
up and down the staff and a solid bullpen full of guys that can get outs. The Astros have a veteran pitching staff
that completely lacks depth and has only two reliable parts in the pen (Wheeler
and Lidge). For the long run, give
me Oakland, but
for a late-season playoff push and possible run to the World Series? I take Houston.
While Harden, Harren, and Zito are cruising right now, it is just
impossible to predict what might happen the rest of the way. Zito could start getting smacked around
again (always possible when your fastball looks like batting practice pithing),
Harden could suffer another injury, Harren could tire out in his first full
season, and so on. With Houston, you know what you
are getting. Pettitte has been a
witch in September and October in the past and is one of the last guys I want my
favorite team facing in a big game.
Oswalt has proven his durability and dominance time and time again. And Roger Clemens has only logged over
200 innings a mere 14 times in his
career, but I’m guessing he’ll hold up when it counts. There is just nothing like having three
proven arms at the front of your rotation and Houston not only has experience, but they have
talent. I’d take the
Clemens/Oswalt/Pettitte trio over any in baseball for a playoff series. Throw in the enthusiastic Brad Backe and
I suspect the Astros will be getting a lot of quality starts from here on out.
3. A Rejuvenated Offense. This team still isn’t going to make
opposing pitchers quake, nor will they be eclipsing St. Louis anytime soon in
the runs scored department.
However, Houston has started to click with the
bats. They scored only 152 runs in
their first 45 games (3.38 per) and have scored 216 runs in their last 43 (5.02
per). With the emergence of Willie
Tavarez (.300 average and 23 stolen bases), the solid work of Craig Biggio (.283
with 38 extra base hits), the return of Lance Berkman (.298/.398), and, of
course, the explosive hitting by Morgan Ensberg (25 home runs, 67 RBI, and a
.998 OPS), the Astros are suddenly pushing runs across the plate. The offense should be able to provide
the pitching staff with plenty of scoring the rest of the way.
Astros and Cardinals are locked in an epic rematch in the NLCS, remember where
you heard it first.
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the
Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of
America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org