The Houston bullpen is extremely strong, but overused. The combination of Brad Lidge, Octavio Dotel and closer Billy Wagner is extremely tough in the late innings, and could force the Yankees to strike early or not at all.
The banged-up Bombers have been spotty lately. They can't seem to get clicking on all cylinders at the same time. Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui are the latest slumping Yankees to break out. Giambi has belted six homers in his last nine games, and has his average up to a more respectable .235. Matsui, since moving down to the seventh spot in the lineup on Thursday, has brought his average back up to .272 and has two homeruns in his last four games.
But the pitching for the Bombers hasn't been so hot. After Roger Clemens pitched brilliantly in his last attempt at win number 300, the bullpen blew his lead. The very next day, the Cubs knocked around Andy Pettitte for six runs in 1 2/3 innings. As a team, the Yankees posted a 5.40 ERA against Chicago, contributing to their two losses in the last series.
The Astros are on a seven-game winning streak, taking advantage of the poor Baltimore Orioles and Devil Rays. During the win streak, Houston is averaging 7.86 runs per game. Their surging offense can be contributed to several players, particularly Morgan Ensberg, and Lance Berkman. Ensberg is on a tear of late, bringing his average all the way up to .340 and mashing five homeruns in his last ten games, all while platooning at the hot corner with Geoff Blum. Berkman is on a 14-game hitting streak, during which time he's raised his average from .253 to .289 and clubbed five homeruns. Richard Hidalgo returned to the Astros lineup on Saturday and hit a homerun. On the flip side of the coin, Jeff Bagwell has been just awful lately. He is still hitting, but he has just one RBI since May 8, and hasn't homered since May 5.
This is going to be a tough series for the struggling Yankees. The Astros hit very well, and have been pitching well lately. The Yanks will face their two best pitchers in Miller and Oswalt, and Robertson has been very good lately. The key to this series is going to be the pitching. If the Yankees starters can go deep into games, taking pressure off the struggling bullpen, things could swing the Yankees' way. But the Astros pitchers are very good at striking batters out, something the Yankees have had trouble with lately. This will be an interesting and exciting series.
Tuesday: Wade Miller (RHP, 4-6, 4.67) vs. Mike Mussina (RHP, 7-4, 3.09)
Miller started the season off poorly, but has come on as of late. In his last eight starts, he has allowed more than three earned runs just once. And in his May 30 start against the Cubs, he struck out 14 while throwing a complete game. Miller is on a two-game win streak and has his ERA down to 4.67. Robin Ventura has homered once off of Miller in three at bats, but Todd Zeile and Bubba Trammell are a combined 2-13 against him.
Mussina hasn't put up a ‘W' since May 7 when he beat Seattle. Since then he has pitched well, but not as brilliantly as he did earlier in the season when he won seven straight. Mussina's strikeout numbers are still high – he leads the AL with 88 – a good indicator that he is still throwing well. Perhaps the return home will do him well. Houston catcher Brad Ausmus knocks around the Moose to the tune of a .533 batting average in 15 at bats.
Wednesday: Roy Oswalt (RHP, 4-4, 3.10) vs. Jose Contreras (RHP, 3-1, 4.62)
Oswalt has allowed just one earned run in two starts since coming back from an injured groin. Oswalt hurt himself while running the bases against the Pirates back on May 15 and has been dazzling since returning. Nine of Oswalt's 11 starts have been quality starts (at least six innings pitched, and at most three earned runs allowed), as he uses his vast repertoire of nasty pitches to mow teams down.
Since joining the rotation on May 30, Contreras has been brilliant. The Cuban right-hander has allowed just two runs over 14 innings while putting up a 12:4 K:BB ratio. He's picked up wins over the Tigers and Reds while bringing his ERA down all the way from the 8.74 he posted as a reliever. Contreras will obviously be facing the Astros for the first time, which could work in his favor. He has tremendous stuff when he's on, and he seems to have settled into his role as a starter quite nicely.
Thursday: Jeriome Robertson (LHP, 4-3, 6.16) vs. David Wells (RHP, 8-2, 3.36)
Houston recalled Jeriome (pronounced Jeremy) Robertson back on May 12 after prospect Kirk Saarloos didn't perform to expectations. Robertson has been solid since rejoining the rotation, if unspectacular. He had pitched four good games before his last outing, when he lasted just 3 2/3 against Tampa Bay. Robertson isn't the strikeout machine that Oswalt and Miller are, and he may prove to be the Yankees' best shot at winning one.
The Bombers' chances increase with David Wells on the mound. Wells is on a two-game winning streak, including a win in relief in the 18-inning marathon at Detroit. Wells has only walked three batters this season in 85.2 innings, a ridiculous number. The Boomer is 1-0 lifetime against Houston, having pitched against them once during his brief stay in the NL in 1995.
The Yankees have had four straight games in which their hitters have struck out at least ten times … Houston's Wagner notched his 200th career save for the Astros on Sunday, setting a new team record.