Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Series Preview: Houston
2006-05-12 13:03
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Human beings in general and sports fans in particular have a tendency to overvalue the significance of the freshest thing in their memories. The NBA Playoffs is built for this, with its game-day off-game-day off-day off-game pattern. After the first two games of the Miami-Chicago series, Miami was going to sweep. After game three, they were toast. Through most of the Detroit-Milwaukee series, the Pistons were on an unstoppable championship run, until the Bucks won one game, and then they had serious flaws. No single person illustrates this principle more than Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal is either finished, soon to retire, or an unstoppable primal basketball force. Could the truth be that he is somewhere in the middle?

I think many of us, including myself, watched the Astros struggle to score a single run during the 2005 World Series and figured that they were due for a huge letdown in 2006. Which is fine, except while they had real offensive issues against the White Sox, it discounts the fact that they, you know, got to the World Series in the first place. Which is hard. Likewise, the loss of Roger Clemens (assuming he's really gone) hurts the team, but the story during last year's regular season wasn't how many games the Rocket was winning for Houston, it was how few runs the Astros were scoring for him. Yes, losing the most dominant pitcher of his generation is never a good thing. But, you know, on the bright side, Houston wasn't winning very many of Roger's starts anyway.

You certainly can't say that the Astros wouldn't now be better off without Clemens and a healthy Jeff Bagwell on the active roster, but until a recent Rockies-induced speed bump, Houston's landing was far softer than any of us expected. Even after a brutal 1-6 road trip against the mighty NL West (yes, that's right, I said the mighty NL West) the Astros enter this three-game series at Minute Maid Park with a 20-15 record, identical to Colorado's current mark. That only places them third in the NL Central in comparison to the Rockies' first-place position, though. (Oh, man, how not tired of saying that am I? So not tired.) The Astros are having a really interesting season. I "scouted" them by watching their game against the Dodgers yesterday and it's really surprising where they're getting their production. Andy Pettite has been wild and vulnerable, Brad Lidge has been a complete disaster. Wandy Rodriguez, of all people, has been the ace of the staff. Dave Borkowski and Russ Springer have been the most reliable guys in the bullpen rather than the more familiar trio of Lidge, Mike Gallo, and Dan Wheeler. Some things make sense. Roy Oswalt is his usual consistent self, and Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg are mashing. Offensively, though, it's weird to see names like Mike Lamb and Brad Ausmus listed ahead of Craig Biggio, Preston Wilson, and Adam Everett on the team OPS table. Wilson has struck out a lot, as you may have heard. It's not so much the strikeouts as the fact that he isn't doing much of anything else -- .260/.301/.409.

So the Astros are playing a little worse than their record, although maybe not as well as their roster suggests they should. Biggio and Pettite aren't the kind of guys you just write off. Wilson seems like he should be tailor-made for that short porch in right at Minute Maid (indeed, four of his five home runs have come at home, although his overall average in Houston is .200, which ought to improve). As for Brad Lidge, I'm not sure what's going on there. He had to be pulled out of an easy save situation in Los Angeles yesterday after walking the bases loaded. Lidge is one of my favorite ballplayers -- I have a #54 Houston road grey jersey in my closet -- and I'd hate to see him go the way of Steve Blass or Rick Ankiel. Well, there's a whole profession now called "sports psychologist," right? My advice to Lidge would be as follows: Hey, man, don't worry, Albert Pujols hits colossal home runs off of everybody. I mean, just this week, he took Jose Mesa deep. The Jose Mesa. If it could happen to Mesa, it could happen to anybody.

Your pitching matchups: Jennings-Nieve (Friday), Cook-Oswalt (Saturday), Francis-Pettite (Sunday). This would be a very nice one to win after a tough series loss in St. Louis, but I'm not sure how certain I am of that happening. The Rockies ought to get the best of Fernando Nieve tonight but the Astros should be revenge-minded after last week's Coors sweep, and they have two very good pitchers going in the weekend games. First things first, let's win the game tonight.

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