Houston Astros still searching for that groove
Through the first 19 games of the season the Astros are 8-11, the bullpen and starting rotation have struggled mightily, and the offense, the supposed strength of the team, has failed to produce. Does this seem familiar to any of you Astros fans? It should – this was the Astros through the first 19 games of the 2005 season. It was a team that would eventually free-fall to a 15-30 record through the first 45 games, prompting the local newspaper, The Houston Chronicle, to print an editorial on the Astros’ imminent demise. The front page of the sports section even featured a large granite tombstone with “R.I.P.” on it. No one could have predicted the way that the Astros finished that season, though. Not one expert or senior baseball analyst at any of the major sports news networks even came close to envisioning how the season ultimately played out. The Astros would finish the season on a 45-10 winning streak and eventually fought their way into their first World Series appearance in franchise history.
The Astros are used to this sort of start. For the past few seasons the Astros have been slow coming out of the gates. The slow starts prompted the firing of former manager Phil Garner and former general manager Tim Purpura. The organization has gone through significant changes every season, and yet, every year, we get the same results. The Astros start slow, but sometime right before or after the All-Star break, the team kicks into another gear and fights for the division and wild-card lead. Somehow, these slow starts have served as a catalyst for the team and their traditional second-half runs.
After what can only be described as a seriously disappointing 4-6 home stand at Minute Maid Park, the Astros hope to right their ship at the friendly confines of the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, against the Reds. In their most recent series against the Brewers, fans saw a bit more fight in the Astros than what they have witnessed so far this season. The Astros dropped a 5-2 loss in the first game of the series, courtesy of some outstanding pitching by young Brewers flamethrower Yovani Gallardo, who pitched a complete game, yielding 2 runs on 5 hits while striking out 7.
The Astros had their hands full again in the second game of the series as well, running into the crafty and durable Jeff Suppan. Suppan went inning for inning with Astros pitcher Mike Hampton, who has pitched effectively over his last two starts. Ultimately it was the Astros bullpen that faltered, and the Astros lost the game in extra innings. The game was the hardest fought of the season for the Astros, as twice they battled back from behind before taking the lead in the 8 th when J.R. Towles singled to score Geoff Blum and Kaz Matsui doubled to score Towles and Darin Erstad. The Brewers would take the lead again in the 9 th when Prince Fielder blasted a two-run shot off of Houston closer Jose Valverde. The Astros would bounce back in the bottom of the inning, and it was Lance Berkman who scored on Bill Hall’s errant throw to first on Hunter Pence’s grounder. With the game knotted at 8 apiece in the 11 th, the Brewers scored the eventual winning run when Ryan Braun singled in Corey Hart.
Astros starter Russ Ortiz pitched a solid game in the series finale, allowing 2 runs on 4 hits through 5 innings of work. It was an exceptional outing for Ortiz as the Astros continued to monitor his pitch count in the early part of the season. It was Ivan Rodriguez who was the hero of the game when he blasted a solo homer off of Manny Parra in the 4 th inning to give the Astros a 3-2 lead. That one run would make the difference and be all that the Astros bullpen would need. Wesley Wright, Chris Sampson, Doug Brocail, La Troy Hawkins and Jose Valverde would shut down the potent Brewers offense over the next four innings to preserve the win for Ortiz.
This Astros team has yet to find its way. The bullpen, which was supposed to be the strength of this team, has faltered, and the rotation has been erratic. The offense has some bright spots, but has yet to come together fully. It has been difficult to watch this team at times this season, but one thing I know for sure is that Lance Berkman will begin to hit, Hunter Pence will continue to develop into a star, Miguel Tejada will be a continuing producer, and left fielder Carlos Lee will provide power from the outfield. When all these elements finally come together, it will be a really fun team to watch as it makes yet another one of its trademark end-of-the-season runs. Go ahead and doubt me. Doubt this team. But whatever you do, don’t share those doubts with Lance Berkman and Co.
News and Notes : Humberto Quintero (C) was placed on a 15-day DL after his collision at home plate with Mike Cameron. Doug Brocail (P) was activated from DL and pitched a scoreless frame in the second game of the series. J.R. Towles (C) was recalled from AAA Round Rock. Brian Esposito (C) was promoted to AAA Round Rock to replace the departed Towles, and Koby Clemens (C) was promoted to AA Corpus Christi.
By: Jordan Fleck
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