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Hurtin' in Houston

Week at a Glance: How long can Astros hold on?

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Wednesday September 01, 1999 07:50 AM

  Starring role: Mike Hampton has quietly posted a 17-3 record, keeping the injured Astros in the hunt. AP

By Aimee Crawford, CNN/SI

The bad vibes began with Moises Alou's misstep off the treadmill during spring training (he tore the ACL in his left knee). They continued when manager Larry Dierker suffered a seizure in the dugout in June. They reached a crescendo when five of six outfielders landed on the DL.

How much more misfortune can one team take?

The Astros entered the 1999 season aiming for their third consecutive NL Central title. Now, following a rash of injuries and an impressive late-season run by the rival Reds, Houston is simply hoping to limp into the playoffs.

How bad is it? Every single Astros regular except Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell has been on the disabled list or sidelined, and third baseman Ken Caminiti, who returned from a torn calf muscle injury in mid-August, has yet to heat up.

Houston has maintained its shrinking NL Central lead by feasting on the small fries (Montreal and Florida). The Astros are only 3-8 vs. the Reds, 1-6 vs. the Braves and 4-5 vs. the Diamondbacks -- a combined 11-22 against division leaders and wild-card contenders.

We wouldn't even be talking about Houston now if not for its starting pitching, which has been the best in the NL this season. The Astros officially embezzled the mantle of best rotation from the Braves this season; Mike Hampton (17-3, 2.97 through Monday), Jose Lima (17-7, 3.48) and Shane Reynolds (14-11, 3.80) form the top trio in the league.

But the staff doesn't get much run support. With their roster depleted, the Astros have returned to manufacturing runs, much like they did in 1997. And they've asked a crop of youngsters -- Russ Johnson, Daryle Ward and Lance Berkman -- to step into big roles.

To stay in contention and stave off the pesky Reds, the Astros need more games like last Sunday, when they erupted for 10 runs and 14 hits, and more out of the fiery Caminiti, who led them to a pennant last year. They also need to land another battle-tested outfielder (Lance Johnson, Darrin Jackson, Dave Martinez) for the stretch run, in case Alou isn't ready.

Despite the dire circumstances, we can't count them out completely just yet. At least two-thirds of Houston's vaunted "Killer B's" combo can still sting. Bagwell is enjoying a typically productive season -- a .309 average with 38 homers and 108 RBIs. Consummate team player Biggio (.306, 61 RBIs) volunteered to play left field last week -- his first outfield start since 1990. The move says a lot about how intangibles, such as his leadership, are helping this team stay afloat. And make no mistake: the Biggio-Bagwell duo still scares foes.

"They can win games by themselves," Reds GM Jim Bowden says. "The good teams will pitch around them. But the mediocre teams aren't going to."

Atlanta Braves at Cincinnati Reds, Aug. 30-Sept. 1
The Reds took round one Monday as these two playoff contenders squared off for a three-game series. But the Braves -- fresh off a 10-game winning streak, the team's longest since 1992 -- seem psyched to be involved in an actual pennant race and still own baseball's best record. Scrappy Cincy is hot on Houston's heels in the NL Central -- despite blowing leads in two games and managing only a split in lowly Montreal over the weekend. And they're looking for revenge after getting swept in Atlanta last week. Atlanta gets its second look at Juan Guzman. The righthander, then with Baltimore, shut out the Braves in June.
If you only watch one:
Greg Maddux (16-6, 3.62) vs. Guzman (4-1, 2.61), Tuesday, Aug. 31
Braves ace pitching with a bone chip in his wrist; how long can he avoid DL?
Oakland A's at New York Yankees, Aug. 30-Sept. 2
Oakland brings its high-octane offense to Yankee Stadium for a four-game set with the AL East leaders. The A's will be looking to gain some ground on the Boston Red Sox in the AL wild card race -- and prove they can win away from the cozy confines and tiny crowds in Oakland. No place is more intimidating to visiting players than Yankee Stadium.
If you only watch one:
Omar Olivares (12-9, 3.99) vs. Roger Clemens (12-6, 4.45)
Clemens comes off best start of the season, fastball and forkball sizzling again
New York Mets at Houston Astros, Aug. 30-Sept. 1
A key series for both playoff hopefuls. The Mets are trying to get back to the post-season for the first time in 11 years -- and didn't help their cause by dropping the final two games of the three-games series against Arizona over the weekend. The injury-riddled Astros are trying to hold off the pesky Reds and maintain their tenuous hold (a half-game through Monday) on the NL Central lead.
If you only watch one:
Kenny Rogers (3-0, 4.03) vs. Jose Lima (17-7, 3.49)
Lima leads the NL with 17 victories; Rogers trying to fill Mets' ace void
Umps take their lumps
Barring some last-minute resolution, expect to see some new faces along the bases as the mass resignation of 22 umpires -- initially staged to force negotiations on the current labor agreement, which expires Dec. 31 -- takes effect Thursday. Umpires union head Richie Phillips says the letters his men submitted July 14 were "merely symbolic," but baseball took them at face value, and the posture is looking like a very ill-conceived labor strategy. The union is hoping some last-minute legal maneuvering, either through the National Labor Relations Board or in U.S. District court, will save their jobs. But baseball has already tabbed minor league umps to take the place of the terminated 22. And a strike is unlikely, since baseball officials warn that any umps who strike will be fired.
September call-ups
Look for plenty of personnel moves as both the deadline for playoff rosters (midnight Tuesday) and the day to expand rosters (Wednesday) come to pass this week. Any player called up from Wednesday on is not eligible for the post-season -- unless he replaces a player at the same position who is headed to the DL. Some names making the last-minute rounds of the rumor mill: Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson and Tampa Bay reliever Roberto Hernandez.

Once the deadline for post-season eligibility passes, teams are allowed to expand rosters from 25 to 40 players. Some rookies who should get the call to the show: OF Chad Hermansen, Pirates (.272 with 31 homers and 90 RBIs with Triple-A Nashville), Jay Payton, Mets (.390 at Triple-A Norfolk) and LHP Matt Perisho, Rangers (won eight of last nine starts at Triple-A Oklahoma).

Edgardo Alfonso, NYM, .319 BA, 23 HRs, 94 RBIs in 127 games this season
Went 6-for-6, with three HRs, five RBIs and six runs scored Monday
Bret Tomko, CIN, 4-7, 5.19 ERA, 154.1 innings this season
Tomko is 0-2 with a 7.90 ERA in last five starts
Dave Nilsson, MIL, .311, 21 HRs, .403 OBP through Aug. 28
Free agent-to-be out for the balance of the season with a broken thumb
For the money
Sean Casey, Cincinnati, .336 BA, 21 HR, 82 RBIs in 121 games this season
Went 8-for-16 with nine RBIs during Reds four-game series with Expos
To the show
Vernon Wells, TOR. .334 with 18 HRs, 24 steals with three farm teams
Jays top prospect goes 0-for-3 in debut, but shows off a strong arm
Harold Baines. Veteran RBI machine makes immediate impact in Cleveland. Thumbs Up
Umps. Last-ditch litigation isn't likely to save jobs, leaving 22 men really blue. Thumbs Down
David Cone. Has lost seven mph off his heater; 1-3 with three no-decisions since the perfect game. Thumbs Down
D-backs 'pen. Arizona relievers are 6-1 with 17 saves in last 86 innings.
Thumbs Up
Wild card. Purists still sneer, but fans in no fewer than seven cities are juiced for a September to remember. Thumbs Up
Questions? Comments? Concerns? Ask the Glance.
Glance answers up
What's the latest on the baseball expansion front? Are the Twins North Carolina-bound anytime soon?
J.C. Larabee, Raleigh, N.C.

In Sports Illustrated's Inside Baseball, Jeff Pearlman and Stephen Cannella reveal that a contingent of owners are considering something pretty radical in lieu of expansion -- consolidation. Several team owners, led by Colorado's Jerry McMorris, are quietly discussing a plan whereby baseball would select an even number of struggling teams -- two at first, perhaps two more later -- buy out the franchises and disperse the players in a draft among the remaining clubs. The Twins are among the clubs under consideration.

"Is there any reason to think Charlotte would be any better than Montreal?" says McMorris. "No. What we can do is be honest and tell the lawmakers in Minnesota the truth: Look, we want your city to have a team, but you're losing money and nobody's watching your games. So build a new stadium, take the right steps, and we'll come back, either through expansion or relocation. Why stay in a market that's not supporting us?"

CNN/SI's Baseball Week at a Glance appears each Tuesday.

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Baseball Week at a Glance: Room for three
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