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Astros have best chance to win NL wild-card scramble

Posted: Thursday September 1, 2005 12:24PM; Updated: Thursday September 1, 2005 12:50PM
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Todd Jones
Todd Jones has kept the Marlins in the race with a shockingly effective season.
AP

The Astros may yet elbow their way into the National League's wild-card spot -- they have the pitching to do it, that's for sure -- but if the postseason gods have a righteous bone in their ethereal beings, the wild card ought to be reserved for somebody in the NL East. Just about anybody.

The East is a five-team mélange of good pitching and so-so hitting in which everybody is above .500 and has a legitimate chance at winning the wild card (including the division-topping Braves, who played only .500 ball in August). No division ever has had all its teams finish above .500. That, alone, should merit an extra participant in the postseason.

The Astros, of course, beg to differ. Here's a look at the NL's wild-card contenders ...

Astros

The Astros were 15 games below .500 and buried in the NL Central in late May. But then their pitching staff woke up and a late-July streak in which they won 13 of 14 pushed them back into the wild-card mix. Now they're a team no one wants to play.

How they can win the wild card: Pitching (the starters' 3.47 ERA is best in the league) is taking the Astros wherever they're going. Roger Clemens (a baseball-best 1.51 ERA) and Andy Pettitte (a 1.60 ERA in 10 second-half starts) have been stunningly good, and Roy Oswalt is better than most as a No. 3 starter. Closer Brad Lidge can shut teams down -- he averages almost 14 strikeouts every nine innings -- and he has fine setup men in righties Chad Qualls and Dan Weaver. The bullpen ranks fourth in the league, with a 3.73 ERA. With that kind of pitching, who needs hitting?

How they can fumble the wild card: Somebody needs to cork some bats. As good as they are on top of the mound, the Astros are simply horrid in front of it. They rank 13th in on-base percentage, 11th in slugging and 13th in runs scored. Craig Biggio, Hall of Famer that he someday may be, has been awful in the second half (.235 batting average, a .674 OPS) and Adam Everett has been just as bad (.258, a .633 OPS). If it weren't for Morgan Ensberg (34 homers, 94 RBIs), Lance Berkman and, occasionally, rookie Willy Taveras (a .298 batting average with way too many strikeouts), Clemens might be toting a pitchfork and a torch and leading a revolt.

Down the stretch (30): Cubs (7), Brewers (6), Cardinals (5), Pirates (4), Marlins (4), Phillies (3), Reds (1). Key series: vs. Marlins, Sept. 12-15; at Chicago Cubs, Sept. 23-25; vs. Cubs, Sept. 29-Oct. 2.

Odds of winning the NL Central (trail St. Louis by 14 games): 4,000:1
Odds of winning a wild-card death match (trail Philly by 1/2 game): 3:1

Marlins

Maddeningly disappointing, the Marlins haven't produced a streak of any note -- good or bad -- since a six-game run of wins in mid-May. Still, with much of the same good, young pitching that helped them ride the '03 wild card all the way to a World Series win, and some of the same dangerous hitters, the Marlins could do damage. 

How they can win the wild card: Florida's starters rank right up there with the best in the league -- officially, with a 3.72 ERA, the Marlins are fourth, behind Houston, St. Louis and Atlanta -- and the reborn Todd Jones has proven eerily effective as a closer (32 saves in 34 tries, a 1.20 ERA). If the starters, especially Dontrelle Willis (closing in on 20 wins), Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett (7-3, 2.65 ERA in 10 second-half starts) get on a roll in the next month, the Marlins won't need a whole lot out of that hiccupping lineup.

How they can fumble the wild card: The Marlins should be better than they are with the bats. They rank second in batting average (.272) and fourth in on-base percentage (.337) but are just middle of the road in scoring runs and 14th in home runs. Juan Pierre (whose on-base percentage is 30 points lower than his career average) and Luis Castillo need to continue to get on, setting up power guys Miguel Cabrera (.331, 28 homers, 94 RBIs) and Carlos Delgado (.290, 26, 95). Septuagenarian skipper Jack McKeon has replaced weak-swinging third baseman Mike Lowell in the lineup at times, which has helped. Still, these guys could stumble through September and waste all that good pitching. Did I say they're maddening?

Down the stretch (29 games remaining): Nationals (7), Braves (6), Mets (6), Phillies (6), Astros (4). Key series: at Houston, Sept. 12-15; vs. Phillies, Sept. 16-18; at Atlanta, Sept. 23-25; vs. Braves, Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Odds of winning the NL East (trail Atlanta by 5 games): 15:1
Odds of winning a wild-card death match (trail Philly by 1 game): 5:1

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