A Tip of the Cap to the Houston Astros

The Houston Astros may not make the National League playoffs in 2006 for the first time in three seasons, but despite a sub-.500 record overall, they've proven they still remain equals to the St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals fans have every reason to be upset and concerned about their team's recent uninspired play and their lack of momentum as they limp toward the general direction of the 2006 playoffs.

After all, the opportunity to play two sub-.500 squads on the road during the final two weeks of the season should be viewed as a prime invitation to end all suspense, not create more.

Instead, a 1-6 trip to Milwaukee and Houston ensued. That was bad enough in itself, basically freezing the magic number countdown. But, it was worse when considering how the losses occurred.

Five happened in the opponent's last at-bat, with four of the defeats being the walk-off variety, leaving the Cardinals to watch their opponents' on-field celebrations time and time again.

Porous late-inning pitching led the way to defeat as recent victims include Braden Looper twice, Tyler Johnson two more times plus Chris Carpenter and Randy Flores.

But, another way to look at the lost weekend is that Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio, Luke Scott and Aubrey Huff were all heroes for the Astros in a series of very, very closely contested games, the last of which may have been decided by a single bad call by a bad umpire, Angel Hernandez.

With the Cardinals offense barely hitting .200 against the Astros this past weekend, the Houston pitchers also deserve to receive a tip of the cap.

Though coming into the weekend, the defending National League Champion Astros had just a slim thread of a chance to knock the Cards from their perch as NL Central Division leader, they have once again proved their mettle as a most worthy competitor.

But, the Cardinals didn't give in, either. For example, as they have done seemingly all season long, the Cardinals demonstrated just enough – just enough to tie Sunday's game once future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens departed for what could be the last time in his career. Yet the Cardinals' comeback was snuffed by Hernandez and Flores, as the latter reacted to the non-call by serving up a three-run home run that closed the Cards' weekend coffin.

Inadvertently, the Clemens celebration at Minute Maid also acknowledged the high likelihood the Astros' season is over despite the four weekend wins. If Clemens, his teammates or the Houston fans actually believed their 2006 campaign would continue, Clemens would certainly be called on to pitch again.

In other words, only a Cardinals collapse of monumental proportions will not extinguish Houston's dimly-lit 2006 flame. It is just going to take a few days longer than it should have.

So, despite all the pain, the Cardinals will likely soon be celebrating their third straight postseason berth and sixth in the last seven years. Over the last three years, these Astros were right there alongside them.

So closely are the two teams matched that this season's series between the pair came down to Sunday's finale. Houston's win clinched the season edge at nine games to seven. The parity continued as both squads won a majority of their home games. St. Louis took four of six at Busch, while Houston won seven of ten at Minute Maid.

Yet, in the current standings, the Cardinals have a four-game cushion in the loss column and a 3.5 game lead overall. Despite their fine series that just ended, Houston remains under .500 on the season and needs a lot of help just to keep making the regular season interesting for a few more days.

Two years ago
In 2004, the Houston club rejoined the playoffs after a two-year absence. The Wild Card Astros lost a hard-fought National League Championship Series to the Cardinals, four games to three. Over the regular season, Houston won 92 games overall compared to the Cardinals 105.

In head-to-head regular season play, the Astros held a narrow ten game to eight game edge. Oddly, they did better at Busch than at home, winning six of nine on the road. Yet, the playoff results proved what happened during the regular season was immaterial.

Last season
The two again met in the 2005 NLCS, but this time, the Wild Card Houston club prevailed, four games to two. During the regular season, St. Louis won 100 games, while Houston took 89.

In head-to-head play, the Cardinals won 11 of 16 games, with a majority home and away, including six in the final season of Busch Stadium II. Again, that success did not matter one bit come October.

In conclusion
The odds continue to indicate that during this 2006 postseason, the Cardinals and Astros will most likely not meet again.

But, I surely wouldn't count out another hard-fought rematch in 2007. Recent history practically demands it.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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