Astros start second half in last place

July 17, 2008 5:29:40 PM PDT
The defining moment of the Houston Astros' season so far is the ugly confrontation between pitcher Shawn Chacon and general manager Ed Wade in the clubhouse before a game on June 25. What the Astros have done on the field has been mostly forgettable.

Houston hit the All-Star break at 44-51, dead-last in the NL Central and 81/2 games out of the wild-card spot.

Wade, hired in September 2007, made a flurry of offseason moves to kick-start the franchise just two seasons removed from its first World Series appearance.

A few changes have paid off, but most have fizzled and despite strong offensive starts from Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, the Astros are on pace for their second straight losing record after just one in the previous 12 seasons.

"We've got to come out of the chute pretty aggressively and play good baseball," manager Cecil Cooper said after the team held an optional workout on Thursday. "I think we just have to play consistently. The way we win is to play consistent baseball."

The offense, expected to be the team's strength before the season, has produced mixed results.

Berkman, the NL's starting first baseman in Tuesday's All-Star Game, is hitting .347, third-best in the NL. The switch-hitter batted .471 with nine homers and 22 RBIs during a remarkable May and carried the Astros to a 17-11 record for the month.

When Berkman cooled off in June, Lee emerged, hitting .301 for the month with six homers and 16 RBIs. He's raised his average to .302 for the season with 21 homers and a team-high 76 RBIs.

Still, as Cooper points out, the offense has been more inconsistent than explosive. Houston averaged 4.8 runs per game in May, then scored no more than two runs in seven consecutive games in early June.

The Astros rank 21st in the majors in runs scored (414) and RBIs (396) and the blame can be spread around.

Miguel Tejada, an All-Star reserve and one of Wade's big offseason gambles, hit .314 in the first two months of the season. He batted only .227 in June and has only seven hits in 44 at-bats in July.

Michael Bourn, acquired by Wade in a trade that sent Brad Lidge to Philadelphia, is hitting .218 and lost his hold on the leadoff spot in the batting order. His 32 stolen bases -- fifth in the majors-- are negated by his .273 on-base percentage.

Bourn was one of the few players who took batting practice on Thursday. He thinks the weeklong break from baseball will help him.

"I could do a lot better," he said. "As time goes on, I think I'll get better with it. It's just more experience. Nothing too drastic. I just get into a little funk."

J.R. Towles, a highly touted prospect expected to succeed Brad Ausmus as Houston's everyday catcher, was sent to the minors after batting .145 in the first two months. He's back with Astros, but only because backup catcher Humberto Quintero suffered a concussion during a game.

The Astros have also played a chunk of the first half without Kazuo Matsui, another pickup by Wade. Matsui is hitting .283, but he's already been on the disabled list twice and has missed 34 games.

The pitching staff has been as mediocre as the hitting, starting with Roy Oswalt's uncharacteristically up-and-down season. The Astros ace, with at least 14 wins in six of the last seven seasons, is 7-8 this season with a 4.56 ERA, well above his career ERA of 3.13.

Now, a nagging hip injury has cast his second half in doubt. Oswalt strained his left hip on the final pitch of an otherwise stellar 6-inning effort against the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 30. He returned July 11, but lasted only one inning in Washington before aggravated the injury again.

Cooper said Oswalt will be evaluated Friday and may start against Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Of the rest of the regular starters, only Wandy Rodriguez has an ERA lower than 4.00. The Astros rank 24th in team ERA (4.49) and are one of only five teams without a complete game.

Chacon was released after his blow-up with Wade, but 36-year-old Brian Moehler has capably filled a rotation spot with five wins in 12 starts. Brandon Backe (6-9) earned his second win in his last nine starts with a strong 7-inning outing against Washington on Sunday.

Cooper said the Astros are better than their record shows in every area.

"We're very capable of competing," he said. "We didn't play up to those standards in the first half. It's a new half, so time for us to step it up and get after it."

Closer Jose Valverde, another offseason pickup by Wade, has been a bright spot in the bullpen, saving 24 games. Valverde certainly had the most dramatic on-field highlight of the season, taking a Pedro Feliz line drive off his face, then shaking it off to save Houston's 4-3 win over Philadelphia on May 23.

Doug Brocail, who turned 41 in May, has proved to be a solid set-up man, with a 3.86 ERA in 44 1-3 innings of work.

Overall, the Astros' bullpen is 15-18 with a 4.17 ERA and leads the majors with 47 home runs allowed. But Cooper sees the bullpen as a team strength.

"They have pitched exceptionally well, I think," he said.

The Astros open a three-game series against the first-place Chicago Cubs on Friday at Minute Maid Park.

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