Surging 'Stros making a Rockies-like postseason push
It's been almost exactly a year since the Rockies began one of the most memorable and impressive stretch runs in baseball history. On Sept. 16, 2007, Colorado snapped a three-game losing streak by hammering the Marlins 13-0 in front of a sparse Coors Field crowd of 19,161 fans. Not one of them would have guessed that the victory was their team's first of 14 in 15 games to close the season and complete a stunning rise from near-death to a playoff berth.
The surge, which began with the Rockies went 4 1/2 games out of the wild-card spot with two weeks to go, didn't end until they had made an improbable World Series appearance. The jaw-dropping 21-1 run was a shining example for playoff hopefuls that it really ain't over until it's over.
"We never really gave up on the season and were just trying to win as many games as possible," recalls Kaz Matsui, then a Rockie and now the second baseman for the Astros, through an interpreter. "The fans in the stadium could feel it, too. It was a magical run."
Maybe the magic is following Matsui. His new team is in the middle of a Rockies-like run to close this season and could very well one-up Colorado's sleight-of-hand with an even more impressive finish.
Consider: On July 23, the Astros were dead last in the NL Central, nine games under .500 and 12 games behind the wild card-leading Brewers. Since then, they've been on an MLB-best 36-16 tear since the All-Star break. Through Thursday night, Houston has won 15 of its last 16 games and, with an 80-67 record, is now just three games behind the Brewers to become the surprise player in a tight four-team race for the NL wild card.
Here are 10 reasons how the Astros have done it, and why they've got the guns to make a shock run into the playoffs and beyond:
1. Roy Oswalt is pitching like Roy Oswalt
The ace of the staff has rebounded from a sub-par first half -- including a nightmarish 0-3 start -- and is suddenly on pace for his best season in three years. He pitched a gem against Colorado last Saturday, going the distance and allowing only one hit. He followed that up on Thursday night with another complete game, a three-hit shutout against Pittsburgh.
With that victory, Oswalt hasn't allowed a run in 32 1/3 innings, setting the franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched. It was also his eighth win in his last nine starts (with only one loss over his past 11), improving his record to 15-9 and lowering his ERA to 3.54. That's still above his career average of 3.14, but it's also the lowest his ERA has been this season.
So what's changed? "Other than I'm not reading that I'm washed up anymore, not much," he jokes. In all seriousness, though, Oswalt adds, "The only thing is that I'm hitting my fastball above the knees, and I'm getting some good ground-ball pitches in there."
More important, Oswalt is looking healthy again after spending parts of the season on the DL with back problems that have chased him since April. And if the Astros are still playing next month, it's not hard to see Oswalt reprise his stunning performance in the 2005 playoffs, where he went 3-0 over four games and won the NLCS MVP award.
2. Picking up slumping teammates
Lance Berkman has just five hits in his last 24 at-bats, yet he's still third in the National League with a .330 average -- and the Astros have lost only once during his dry spell. It's a testament to the rest of the squad that they've kept the team afloat during Berkman's struggles.
Sooner or later, he's going to break out: His 3-for-4 performance with a homer and four RBIs on Tuesday against Pittsburgh is more like the Berkman who put up MVP-type numbers throughout the first half. His teammates aren't going to have to carry him forever. Especially if...
3. Carlos Lee could return for the playoffs
It's amazing to think that the Astros have been on this tear with their most dangerous slugger out of the lineup for more than a month. El Caballo had surgery to repair a broken pinkie finger he suffered on Aug. 9, but could be back in time for the NLCS.
Before he went down, Lee was having a career year, batting .314 though 115 games with 28 home runs and 100 RBIs. Lee would likely be rusty if he joins the playoff roster after such a long layoff -- but think of how much protection he'd give a lineup that already features Berkman, Miguel Tejada, Ty Wigginton and Darin Erstad.
4. Surprise midseason pickups
Pitchers Randy Wolf and LaTroy Hawkins have contributed more than anyone could have imagined. Wolf, in particular, has been a big boost since coming over in a trade with San Diego on July 22: The 32-year-old journeyman has gone 4-1 in nine starts and shored up a shaky rotation that once featured two Triple-A call-ups. Hawkins, on the other hand, hasn't allowed a run in 13 innings pitched in middle relief since being acquired from the Yankees on July 30.
5. A lights-out bullpen
The middle relief has been solid, but when José Valverde comes in, the door shuts nearly every time. He has successfully converted his last 17 save opportunities dating back to Aug. 9 and leads the NL with 42 saves. He's just two off the franchise record set by Billy Wagner in '03.
6. Surprise heroes
Like Wolf and Hawkins, the least likely players are stepping up when Houston needs them. Take Monday night's 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh. Pitcher Alberto Árias made his first big-league start at age 24, and struck out six of the first nine batters he faced en route to the win. And the rally from a two-run deficit started thanks to another rookie: Houston native Mark Saccomanno, who hit the first major-league pitch he saw out of the park. That's how things have been going down the stretch for this team.
7. They've done this before
The Astros are no strangers to turning a season around. After starting the '05 season 15-30, Houston rattled off a 42-17 run by the end of July to vault back into wild-card contention. They clinched a postseason berth on the final day of the season, upset the favored Atlanta Braves in four games in the NLDS and then knocked off the St. Louis Cardinals -- the team that won the NL Central by 11 games over second-place Houston -- in a seven-game NLCS classic.
It's an eerie parallel to the Rockies, who needed until the final day of the season to book their wild card ticket to the playoffs, knocked off a heavily favored team in the NLDS (Phillies) and beat the champions of their division (Diamondbacks) to win the pennant before running out of juice in the World Series.
"They reminded me a lot of us in '05," recalls Oswalt. "We started out that season [slow], and we went on to win the wild card and went to the World Series. Then we finally cooled off and came up short, just like the Rockies did last year."
8. Their remaining schedule is light
The Astros won't face the Brewers again this season, and other than a three-game home stand with the division-leading Cubs (originally scheduled for this weekend, but in limbo due to Hurricane Ike), their remaining opponents are imminently beatable.
Their only remaining opponent with a winning record is the Marlins (just two games above .500) in Florida next week. If the 'Stros aren't closer to the wild-card lead by then, they can look to their final nine games of the year -- against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Atlanta -- to make up more ground. All told, Houston has a 28-18 record this season against their remaining foes.
9. The competition is struggling
On July 26, the Brewers were tied with the Cubs for the NL Central lead. Since then they've fallen steadily behind, and September has been especially cruel: Milwaukee has lost eight of its last 11 games and still has six to play against the Cubs.
Similarly, St. Louis has lost eight of its last 12 and still has three games left at Wrigley Field and a four-game set with the NL West-chasing Diamondbacks. The Phillies, currently tied with Houston at three games behind Milwaukee, are playing .500 ball over the past two weeks, but can also help the Astros with three more games against the Brewers. Philadelphia may be the biggest threat to Houston's charge. That said...
10. Their fate is in their hands
The attitude around the Houston clubhouse is that the wild card is theirs for the taking. "We're expecting to win almost every game now instead of hoping to win," Oswalt says. "People think that if you go out there and win two of three in a series, you're in good shape. We think we can win them all."
The players say that even though they know they have to keep up the pace, the mood in the clubhouse is loose and confident, and you'd never know the team is knee-deep in a tense playoff chase. Confidence is a dangerous weapon, and when you mix that with a loose, fun-loving mood, great things happen. Just ask the Rockies of last season.
Matsui sums it up thusly: "The Astros this year have also been a team that has not given up. We believe we can win."