Mission Improbable

Nothing has come easy in the National League Central in 2006.

While the Cubs and Pirates have been torpedoing towards the basement of the baseball world, the other four teams – the Cardinals, Reds, Astros, and Brewers – have been trapped in a twilight zone of poor fortunes and unlikely events, a zone roughly measured by ten games above and below the mean, and containing all kinds of oddity and mediocrity within.

Houston has plumbed both the heights and the depths of this swamp. The Astros soared early to a 19-9 start to the season that included an ominous two-game stomping of the Redbirds, then without major injury or disaster, inexplicably fell apart. The team reached bottom last month with a 58-65 record before rebounding mildly to where they are today, two games below .500, five games behind St. Louis, and 3.5 games back in the wildcard chase.

And while they have traveled the far reaches of this mysterious bog, they have encountered many mysteries, unlikely events, and downright spooky phenomena.

Consider if you will, the case of three top pitchers, co-aces of the staff, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte. The un-retired "best pitcher alive" has yet again posted a microscopic ERA under 2.5 in his starts. Mean-eyed Oswalt is quietly making a Cy Young case for himself, and Pettitte has surged in the second half. And yet they have all been bested by a pitcher who has arguably been the league's worst – who has allowed the NL's most home runs, given up the most earned runs, and been thrown to the lions on more than one occasion to take horrific beatings in the name of saving a tired bullpen. This pitcher, Jason Marquis, has more wins (14) than each of Houston's top three.

Or consider the recently-ended 30- game hitting streak by Houston's Willy Taveras, their leadoff man and lineup igniter. During his slap-happy streak, he rung up 45 hits (38 of which were singles) and stole 14 bases in 17 tries. And during this consistent offensive performance, his lineup mates went into a collective funk, hitting .251, and only .235 with runners in scoring position. In those thirty games, the team had a five-game winning streak erased by a subsequent six-game losing skid, but recovered to eventually win one more game than it lost, and managed to gain two games in the wildcard standings, mostly because the Reds were playing worse than they.

The loss of Houston closer Brad Lidge's mojo deserves a story of its own, one that Cardinal fans are all too happy to hear. The conventional wisdom goes that Albert Pujols' mammoth home run in the 2005 NLCS is responsible for the mental unhinging of the once-mostfeared closer in the National League. However, this is one story that may soon be put back on the shelf – Lidge has saved 9 of the last ten opportunities given him, and has struck out 26 men in his last 16 innings.

Power outage

It has been a summer-long struggle for this Houston team to find itself in the midst of all this confusion, as it has been for the division-leading Cardinals as well, as for all the teams trapped knee-deep in this swampy middle of the league.

Houston's owners have, rather un-characteristically, opened up the pocketbooks and sank considerable dollars into this team. They lost out on the Carlos Beltran bidding war two years ago, but shoved a mighty war chest under Clemens' nose to keep his services available for this season, and shook the money tree yet again to extend their commitment to Roy Oswalt. Oswalt was linked in a few trade rumors this July, but this move appears to quash any prospect of this terror's leaving the division for greener pastures.

Right now Houston has the best 1- 2-3 rotation in the NL, no argument, and in that respect are built very well for the playoffs. The disappointment has come from the bats, who simply don't hit the ball enough.

Players like Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Preston Wilson love to take mighty swings that would cause even Paul Bunyan to blush. When they connect, the ball goes a long, long way, but too often their swings produce little more than a faint breeze and a striekout. Ensberg has managed to draw a respectable amount of walks while spending most of his time in the #4 spot protecting the team's best hitter, Lance Berkman. But walks only help so much with such a lack of contact hitting behind you.

The Astros rank last in the NL in hits from the cleanup spot, and near the bottom for power from the #5 spot in the lineup, producing low RBI totals overall. And the 7-8-9 spots in the Astro lineup have been opposing pitchers' best friends.

Houston has fired hitting coach Gary Gaetti and churned the lower half of the order, attempting to solve this problem.

Preston Wilson was "designated for assignment" this summer, a delightful euphemism for being dumped on his ass. (Try telling that to the unemployment office next time; you weren't fired or laid off, but merely "designated for assignment." See how long it takes before they stop laughing.) Jason Lane was demoted to the minors to make room for hot-hitting rookie Luke Scott, though now Lane is back and once again taking hacks at bad pitches, and valuable at bats away from the rook. Aubrey Huff was acquired from Tampa Bay in the team's only notable midseason deal, and has hit a pedestrian .256 with reasonable (but not exceptional) patience and power.

Except for the youngster Scott's emergence (think Chris Duncan, but more highly touted before the year began), the outcome of all this movement has mostly been a wash.

A desperate fight

September baseball is, at its best, clarifying – the final weeks of a 162- game contest which tests the endurance and makeup of its would-be champions, like the last 1,000 feet of a mountain climb. Weaklings fall to the wayside, clutching their sides and gasping for oxygen, as the stronghearted charge forward toward the summit.

If that's the kind of baseball you like, the kind of life-affirming stories of teamwork and achievement, might I recommend the American League?

The National League offers only stories of desperate struggles for survival, its teams bunched together like a swarm of army ants trying to cross a river.

If you've never seen this phenomenon on one of the many televised nature programs, let me describe it for you. These ants can barely float, and cannot swim, so to make their way across they each climb onto each other, forming a ball of squirming insectitude that bobs up and down on the flowing current. Ants scramble chaotically over other ants, trying to breathe.

Those below the water's surface make it to the top or die trying. The ones on top must fight gravity as well as each other to survive, battling until the grace of the water's current lands them at the end of the journey.

It's an all-too-familiar story.

Houston has 20 games left to play in the next 21 days, and except for one series against Pittsburgh, each of those series will come against fellow ants like themselves, in the same desperate fight.

vs. STL: 7 games

vs. PHI: 4 games (including a makeup game)

vs. CIN: 3 games

vs. PIT: 3 games

vs. ATL: 3 games

Its faint hopes of making the playoffs will have to stem from a turnaround against its top two division rivals. The Cards have won five of nine games against Houston this year, including the last three, and the Reds have bounced the vaunted Astro pitching staff around for better than six runs per game, winning nine of those 12 contests.

Except for the seven games against the Phils and Reds, they cannot directly impact the wildcard race, a race in which they must overtake the Padres and Giants in the West, the Marlins and Phillies in the East, and the Reds. Much of their fate is out of their hands, and many eyes – their own and their fans – will be on the scoreboards during each of these series, looking for signs of hope.

On the other side of the diamond, the Cardinals must approach these games with a playoff mindset now, so that they may not have to face this pitching staff again come October.

Contact: hoton@stlouisgametime.com


EDITOR's NOTE: St. Louis Game Time is the official print publication of The Birdhouse.  It can be purchased before all home games at the stadium and is also available by email subscription. For more content, visit www.StLouisGameTime.com.

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