Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Launch Sequence


Ensberg has been
leading the charge
A few days ago a wrote a column for WhatifSports detailing why I think the Astros will continue their winning ways and land the NL Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Since that time they got swept in St. Louis and then took three straight from the Pirates, and I remain convinced that they are going to "get it done" (I'm getting back to showing some love for Digger Phelps) down the stretch. Posted as the first comment to this thread is the column in its entirety. I forgot to get it to my editor before he went on vacation, so we'll have to house it here. Enjoy.

6 comments:

Adam Hoff said...

Launch Sequence

The Astros are poised for another late-season playoff run

By Adam Hoff


Ever since Billy Beane took over as GM in Oakland, the A’s have been considered the masters of the second half. In 2000 the A’s went 21-7 in September to snag the AL Wild Card. In 2001 they went a ridiculous 64-19 after July 1st and won the AL West. In 2002 it was a 42-12 August/September, complete with a 20-game winning streak. So it is no surprise - despite a modest close to 2003 and a September collapse (12-16) last year - that when the A’s won 27 of 38 games heading into the break to climb back into the AL playoff picture, people started getting excited. Not only that, Oakland has won its first two games coming out of the All-Star games behind gems from Rich Harden and Barry Zito. Bobby Crosby is healthy and hitting, Eric Chavez is heating up, the bullpen is full of young studs, and Danny Haren is teaming with Harden (an absolute beast) and a reinvigorated Zito to form a new Big Three in the starting rotation.

Despite all of this, I still say that the A’s are the wrong team to focus on this year when it comes to second half charges. When you consider that they are 7.5 games out in the West and behind five teams (including perennial playoff teams in the Twins and Yankees) in the Wild Card, it is going to be difficult to vault into the playoff picture. In fact, I think the young A’s will fade late and chalk this season up to a great learning experience; something to build on for the future.

All of which means that the Houston Astros are the new Kings of Comeback. After going 23-7 in their final 30 games a year ago to cruise all the way to Game Seven of the NLCS, the ‘Stros are making yet another charge after being left for dead. Granted, things are different this time around. Last year, the Astros had lofty expectations after the acquisitions of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. They had World Series aspirations that went into the toilet after losing months in June and July left them at .500 for the year and seemingly out of contention. But then they traded for Carlos Beltran, inserted Brad Lidge as an unhittable closer, adopted the gritty style of new manager Phil Garner, and rode Clemens and Roy Oswalt into the playoffs, going 40-18 after August 1. This time around, the expectations were lower after losing Beltran, so no one was surprised to see Houston sitting at 15-30 with virtually no hope. In fact, the only thing the Astros were known for at that point was their ridiculously low run support for the ageless Roger Clemens.

Then, suddenly, my buddy Juice was telling me to “watch out for the ‘Stros!” He was scheduling his weekends around Astros games and sporting his lucky hat and jersey combo. In short, he was feeling the magic. And I’ll be honest, I hadn’t really noticed what was happening in that weird little ballpark. So when I started looking closer, it surprised me to find that Houston had gone 29-13 during their final 42 games leading into the break. Just as the A’s had found their stride, so too had the Astros. Unfortunately for Juice and other ‘Stros diehards, Houston suffered a crushing loss last night in St. Louis, when Albert Pujols wiped away a 3-2 13th inning deficit with a two-run, game-winning home run. The brutal defeat sent the Astros back to .500 and needing to win one of the next two with Oswalt and Clemens on the mound (facing Marquis and Carpenter, respectively).

Regardless of what happened last night, the Astros are still my pick to win the NL Wild Card. While, unlike the A’s, the Astros have no chance to win their division (the Cardinals are like a machine), and while they do trail four teams in the wild card standings, they have three distinct advantages over Oakland.

1. The National League East. For Oakland to win the wild card in the American League, they will have to leapfrog divisional rival Texas, hope that Baltimore and New York cancel each other out, AND count on the AL Central to beat each other up and keep either the Twins or Indians from getting hot. That is a lot to ask. The Astros, on the other hand, are preceded in the standings only by divisional rival Chicago (who they own) and then a bunch of NL East teams (Atlanta, Florida, and Philly, with the Mets right behind Houston). There is no way that an entire division will finish in front of the Astros if they keep playing well the rest of the way. It’s impossible. Therefore, we can knock two teams out of the way, just because of that fact, leaving Houston to compete with the Cubs and the NL East runner-up for the prized Wild Card spot. Those sound like much better odds to me. Throw in the fact that the NL East has so much parity and that the Cubs are the biggest chokers in baseball and you can feel pretty confident saying that neither of those entities will win more than 92 games. If Houston can go 48-26 (a .649 winning percentage) the rest of the way and get to 93 wins, you have to like their chances. Considering they are winning at a .674 clip since May 24, it is not a stretch to pencil in those 93 wins as a reasonable projection.

2. Veteran Pitching. The similarities between Oakland and Houston are pretty astounding. Both had sputtering offenses jump-started by a slugging third baseman (Chavez and Ensberg) and the return of a key injured player (Crosby and Berkman), both have had payroll difficulties that forced them to lose important players in the offseason (Hudson/Mulder and Beltran), and both have had key players go down for the remainder of the season (Dotel and Bagwell). And while both teams win with pitching, the respective staffs are the biggest separator of the two clubs. The A’s have young arms up and down the staff and a solid bullpen full of guys that can get outs. The Astros have a veteran pitching staff that completely lacks depth and has only two reliable parts in the pen (Wheeler and Lidge). For the long run, give me Oakland, but for a late-season playoff push and possible run to the World Series? I take Houston. While Harden, Harren, and Zito are cruising right now, it is just impossible to predict what might happen the rest of the way. Zito could start getting smacked around again (always possible when your fastball looks like batting practice pithing), Harden could suffer another injury, Harren could tire out in his first full season, and so on. With Houston, you know what you are getting. Pettitte has been a witch in September and October in the past and is one of the last guys I want my favorite team facing in a big game. Oswalt has proven his durability and dominance time and time again. And Roger Clemens has only logged over 200 innings a mere 14 times in his career, but I’m guessing he’ll hold up when it counts. There is just nothing like having three proven arms at the front of your rotation and Houston not only has experience, but they have talent. I’d take the Clemens/Oswalt/Pettitte trio over any in baseball for a playoff series. Throw in the enthusiastic Brad Backe and I suspect the Astros will be getting a lot of quality starts from here on out.

3. A Rejuvenated Offense. This team still isn’t going to make opposing pitchers quake, nor will they be eclipsing St. Louis anytime soon in the runs scored department. However, Houston has started to click with the bats. They scored only 152 runs in their first 45 games (3.38 per) and have scored 216 runs in their last 43 (5.02 per). With the emergence of Willie Tavarez (.300 average and 23 stolen bases), the solid work of Craig Biggio (.283 with 38 extra base hits), the return of Lance Berkman (.298/.398), and, of course, the explosive hitting by Morgan Ensberg (25 home runs, 67 RBI, and a .998 OPS), the Astros are suddenly pushing runs across the plate. The offense should be able to provide the pitching staff with plenty of scoring the rest of the way.

When the Astros and Cardinals are locked in an epic rematch in the NLCS, remember where you heard it first.

Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at wis.insider@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

I bet you 10 bucks the A's make the playoffs and the Astros don't.

Anonymous said...

Even as recently as early June I went back to calling my beloved Astos the same name I grew up calling them in the early 90's, the Lastros. I had all but resigned hope when I began thinking about what a waste of money my field level seats to Dodgers vs Astros was going to be. Then something changed... The bats figured out that if they can hang only four runs a game they would be all but unstoppable, Berkman recovered his swing, and the role players began to swing with swaggar. "Watch out for the 'stros" is right. The patchwork Astros have found their rhythm as a team and are starting to play with the same unbeatable attitude that they carried through game 5 of the 2004 NLCS. This is a team that was at the bottom of the cellar as far as road wins through June and have since been treating the oponents parks as if they were the good ole juicebox of Minute Maid.

The next couple of weeks are crucial for the Astros to make a strong move. They have a three game series at home against Philly followed by four games with the Mets (Beltran's return to H Town.) This is the time for them to strike, to beat up on the flailing Nats a bit after dominating the Bucs and ride the wave into some easier West Coast series. They have a great chance to gain some ground in the Wild Card race over the next week and a solid chance to dominate their August schedule with a huge home stretch in the middle of the month.

Ensberg has broken out, Berkman (my vote for NL Player of the Week) is back in rhythm withough quite as much power, Taveras has filled the position of lead off man perfectly, the pitching has been superb (with the exception of some shaky middle-relief) and Garner is back to being as popular as Rudy T during the Rockets run. They are putting guys on base and finding ways to score. The fire has been lit, you don't want to face the Astros.

Don't be suprised if the 'stos continue to be the hottest team in baseball through August and finish out the season thumping the Cubbies to take the Wild Card.

Mike said...

I think the A's and Astros will both win the wild card. There's just something to be said for hitting your stride at the right time. I'll say this though, with eight teams in contention for the WC in the AL and 6 teams in the hunt in the NL, it will be the most exciting chase yet. I've got it coming down to the A's, Twins, and Yankees in the AL and the Astros and Marlins in the NL.

KC said...

Man, it is all about the Astros and A's in the wild card races. I'd tell you good job, but you didn't really get on board with the A's, so I'll give you a half good job.

Adam Hoff said...

I'll always take half a good job.