Friday, September 29, 2006

The Bigger Picture

The talk of Major League Baseball heading into the final weekend of the season is centering on the possibility of the St. Louis Cardinals suffering a collapse the likes of which we've never seen. Nine days ago, they led the Houston Astros by 8.5 games in the NL Central. Now, heading into tonight's games, that lead is down to a mere half game. If Houston wins the same number of these final three games as St. Louis, the Cardinals will be required to play a makeup contest against the Giants on Monday to fend them off. If Houston wins one more game than the Cards, St. Louis will have to beat San Francisco just to force a playoff. To say that this situation was unexpected would be a massive understatement.

However, to focus only on the potential collapse this weekend is to miss the point entirely, at least in regard to the Astros. While this would certainly be a dark day for Cardinals fans, the fact is, they appear unlikely to do much damage in the playoffs. I've talked to fans of a variety of other NL teams and they all say the same thing: "We want to play St. Louis." The Cards have Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter and not a whole lot else right now. They were looking like either the perfect patsy for the now Pedro-less New York Mets, no match for San Diego's pitching, or the ideal opponent for hot teams like the Dodgers or Phillies. Not for one minute did the Houston Astros enter the equation.

And now that they have, everyone seems to be ignoring the implications of this reemergence, which is a mistake. Because if Houston makes the playoffs, it signifies more than a dramatic story - it changes the entire face of the National League playoffs.

Try this on and see how it fits: Houston Astros, NL Favorites.

Crazy? Hardly. This is a team that for what seems like the 20th straight season has risen from the ashes in remarkable fashion. Every year they keep cutting it close and closer and maybe this is the year they don't make it. But if they do? Can you imagine a team going into the playoffs on a bigger high? It is safe to say they would have momentum on their side. In addition, they would also enter the postseason with the confidence and experience that is the result of winning the NL pennant last year. They know what it takes to win.

Beyond the emotional and mental advantages that the 'Stros might have, they also have some things going for them on the field. Obviously, they have tremendous pitching. Roy Oswalt has quietly had another fantastic season, going 15-8 with a 2.98 ERA (why isn't he getting mention for NL Cy Young with Carpenter, Brandon Webb, and Trevor Hoffman?). Andy Pettitte is 7-4 with a 2.92 since the All-Star break. Clemens is 7-5 with a 2.35 ERA and is far healthier than he was at this time last year. While they lack a strong fourth starter, Houston clearly has the best rotation (apologies to the Padres) of any NL contender. As for the offense, it is finally starting to come around. Since being swept at home by the Phillies, Houston has won 10 of 11 and scored 64 runs (5.8 per game) in the process. Thanks to callup Luke Scott (14 RBI in last 10 games), the largely overlooked Lance Berkman (.314/44/133), and Aubrey Huff (6 for last 10 with two home runs and five RBI), Houston is finally pushing some runs across the plate. Not enough to scare anybody, but enough to win 4-2 games in October. In fact, other than the question marks surrounding Brad Lidge at the back end of the bullpen, you could argue that the 'Stros actually have fewer issues than any other team in the National League.

All of this is just another reason to keep a close eye on the Astros and Cardinals over the next few days. Because if Houston overtakes St. Louis, we won't just be witnessing an epic collapse. We might be seeing the balance of power in the National League shift right before our very eyes.

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