Stellar Cellar

Look out, Astros fans. Worst can be wonderful.

Overview:

For years, Astros fans chanted, "No more mediocrity!"

The Houston heathens pleaded to Drayton McLane. He made his vow: Give him a stadium, and big thrills would be on the way. No more unmemorable seasons. And the Astros' owner has lived up to his pledge.

But nobody could predict what has come to pass: a title race as dramatic as any in franchise history. Rather than mediocre, the Astros are on a pace to finish truly awful. They have the crown -- of lousiest team in all of the major league -- within their sights. And the first-place-to-last swing stands to make it that much more bizarre. Yes, this one's shaping up as something to tell the great-grandkids about.

Division titles be damned -- this is the Bayou City's date with destiny.

Only one major problem persists at this point -- the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. To accurately assess the odds, here's the Inside Losers Guide:

Stats:

(Note: The word "standings" is no longer applicable; standing implies having risen, or at least being in an alert state of awareness. So the Astros' rankings are now referred to as "sittings." Also, traditional reporting of won-lost stats are outdated; in this race, they are lost-won figures.) As of the middle of last week, the rankings in the race for worst:

Unfortunately, at deadline the MLB did not have the most recent salient stats: CFADs (come-from-ahead defeats). However, Houston reportedly has an ironclad lock. There's another strength in this general category. In one-run games, Houston has notched a 19-3 lost-won record. That stomps the Devil Rays' 16-14. Similarly, in extra-inning games, Houston's lost-wons are 6-3; Tampa Bay actually has a winning 3-5 mark here.

When it comes to choking, there's no Heimlich in Houston.

Best Streak:

Tampa Bay doesn't show up in this category -- yet. The Astros are tied with five other teams for longest home losing streak this season, with six straight Enron defeats.

Nod to the Astros. The best streak is the fan who got naked, leaped from Ruggles and dashed through center field.

Pitching:

Again, advantage Houston.

Three words: bullpen; Jose Lima.

His 13-2 lost-wons puts him far atop the league's loss percentage mark. He's been assisted quite nicely by Wade "Miller Lite" and his 2-0, as well as the venerable Chris "Can't" Holt at 11-4. Relievers have been uniformly wonderful.

The one blemish: Scott Elarton. He can't hope to stay 'Stros with that discouraging 3-9 lost-won mark. Even "Shame" Reynolds has seen the light on this one.

Payroll/Finances:

McLane will continue to cry for alms, but he has amassed hefty sums with the shrewd maneuvering. Consider:

The players he has assembled would be lucky to get minimum wage out of an arbitrator.

This title race has the cash registers ringing wildly at Enron. Decide who is more likely to load up on dogs and beer, even at $5.50:

a. The ones riveted to their seats in a 3-2 pennant-contending game; or

b. The slobs showing up now, trying to drown their sorrows at paying $40 in tickets for a game that's 13-2 visitors in the third inning.

The ballpark is expanding into Enron Shopping Mall, built around the quaint attraction of a ball diamond in the middle. Boutiques and food kiosks are scoring big, even if the team isn't.

McLane, with roots as a grocery supplier, will soon rake in bigger bucks. When fans finally turn to the bags-over-the-heads, he'll be ready with hawkers yelling, "Paper or plastic?"

The Union Station choo-choo will stop making any runs, to save on the rising price of fuel. It will be renamed the McLane Train: blowing plenty of smoke but going nowhere.

Finally, the financial flow will pick up with residual payments from the Astros' latest contract for broadcast rights -- with Comedy Central.

Depth:

A push. Can either team go deeper into the cellar?

Experience:

Tampa Bay scores here. Houston's past playoff shams have honed their ability to collapse under pressure. But in the last two years they've compiled miserable lost-won marks of 60-102 and 65-97.

The Devil Rays, meanwhile, are veterans -- virtually a dynasty of defeat in those same seasons. Consider that they were one loss shy of 100 in '98, slipping only slightly in the following season to a very respectable 93-69 lost-won mark.

Make no mistake about it -- Tampa Bay knows how to lose, and lose well. The Astros are only beginning to display that kind of flair.

Schedule:

Edge to Tampa Bay.

This is what baseball's all about, a long season winding down to three very crucial games. Unless the Astros somehow manage a miraculous mathematical elimination of the Devil Rays before then, September 29 to October 1 will be the most significant season-ending series in Houston franchise history.

Tampa Bay draws pennant contender Boston for the closer series after three games with the Yankees. So the Devil Rays have a perfect matchup to claim the loser crown. Houston, on the other hand, has to face off in the last three against the Milwaukee Brewers, who might be a straight-up contender for the worst-team title by then.

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