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The Astros are poised for another late-season playoff run

 

By Adam Hoff

 

Ever since Billy Beane took over as GM in Oakland, the As have been considered the masters of the second half.  In 2000 the As 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 As won 27 of 38 games heading into the break to climb back into the AL playoff 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. 

 

Despite all of this, I still say that the As 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 As will fade late and chalk this season up to a great learning experience; something to build on for the future.

 

All of 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.

 

Then, 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 Ill be honest, I hadnt 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 As 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). 

 

Regardless of what happened last night, the Astros are still my pick to win the NL Wild Card.  While, unlike the As, 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.  Its 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 As 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 Im guessing hell 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.  Id 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 isnt 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.

 

When the 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 wis.insider@gmail.com

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