Late Launch: Houston at St. Louis

The Houston Astros are as hot now as they were cold when they last met the St. Louis Cardinals, but closer Jose Valverde has been no more automatic than his predecessor, Brad Lidge.

Early season trends fluctuate as sprint weather patterns so often do, and when suddenly hot teams meet suddenly cold ones, all kinds of chaos can erupt.

When the Houston and St. Louis clubs first met on the year, the Cards were riding a wave of optimism chased by eager young bats and oft-overlooked pitchers with chips on their shoulders, while the Astros looked creaky and were scuffling mightily. Since that time, though, a number of key players have suddenly found the barometer moving quite quickly in opposite directions.

While the Cards have dropped four of six, the team they come home to face is on a five-game winning streak that has them within a game of .500. Most of Houston's struggles before this recent surge have come from the offense, which has been both impatient (11th in OBP: .314, 13th in walks: 65) and unlucky (14th in BABIP: .276). While they are middle-of-the-pack in run prevention, clunkers from key members of the pitching staff have also hurt.

Some key players are starting to wake up after this inglorious start.

Miguel Tejada celebrated two birthdays since we last met, and has yet another one coming up this May. He has also put his aged hands to work, regaining the thunder in his bat with a .429/.462/.612 line since April 10th, the day after the Cards left town. His average had dipped as low as .231 prior.

Roy Oswalt, who faces off against Adam Wainwright in Saturday's marquee matchup, began the season with a trio of shockingly hittable outings, giving up as many runs (16) in 16 innings as he might in any given month of his sterling career. However, since his start on the 11th, the lanky seed-thrower has begun peppering the plate and punishing hitters once again, winning his last two handily.

Young outfielder Hunter Pence nearly wore out our venerable radio broadcast team's thesaurus, looking for different ways to say "lost at the plate." Where qualitative analysis fails, quantitative numbers will help: Pence was a woeful .186/.186/.302 at series' end. However, since then he has taken a deep breath (and four walks, even), celebrated his 25th birthday, and has hit in his last eight, batting 9-for-19 with four XBH in the process.

Finally, Kazuo Matsui, whose start to the season was delayed by an injury so heinous and gruesome that its name shall not be spoken here, has returned and has eight hits in the last five games to spark the top of the lineup.

Overall, the Astros are a team that started the season looking old and gray, but is now performing a Rip Van Winkle act that threatens to further muddle the middle of the NL Central, while the Cubs begin to stretch away. As these players are waking up, the one player that Astros fans – and its front office – are most anxious to see signs of life from is the team's new closer.

When new GM Ed Wade traded away Brad Lidge for Phillies' speedy fourth outfielder Michael Bourn, the reaction among many casual fans was a sense of closure. The city appeared to turn on Lidge, who became increasingly erratic after his fall from grace in the 2005 playoffs. However, it opened a gaping hole in the depleted Houston bullpen.

In trying to fill that hole, Wade actually widened his risk by trading away his only other consistently effective reliever, Chad Qualls. The low-paid eighth-inning man departed for Arizona as part of the package that brought the National League's saves leader, Jose Valverde, to Houston.

Valverde has long been an intriguing talent with an electric fastball/changeup mix who finally had the breakout year that many had predicted. However, accumulating high numbers of saves does not in itself a dominant closer make – just ask Joe Borowski. Or perhaps Ricky Bottalico, who is Valverde's #1 comparable at his current age on baseball-reference.com.

Nevertheless, Wade had seen enough to make him the man. And now, manager Cecil Cooper has to stick with the company line, even though Valverde has flat out stunk. The big man (6-foot-4, 254) has given up more than two base-runners per inning, and only has four scoreless outings in his first nine trips to the mound. He has blown three of his five save opportunities, including a 3-0 lead in St. Louis that wasted a sterling start by Wandy Rodriguez. Not exactly shutdown stuff.

The rest of the Astros' bullpen is now built around retread arms, like Geoff Geary, Brian Moehler, and the 41-year-old Doug Brocail. 23-year-old Wesley Wright, who struggled massively in AAA last season (and ironically ensured a roster spot by driving down his tradability), is the only developing youngster of note in relief.

With no available options, Cecil Cooper has little option but to continue to proclaim his confidence in Valverde, and to keep sending him out there. The Astros' closer has finally rewarded his manager's patience in his last three outings: a clean save against Colorado, a win in relief after minimizing damage against San Diego, and a two-strikeout save last night against the Reds.

However, the Astros have seldom been able to feel comfortable with a lead over the Cards in recent years, in a game or in the division. Once again, the Redbirds have an opportunity to peck away at Houston's confidence in their closing man.



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