Astros Are Red-Hot...For Now

Is it actually possible? Is it actually possible that the Houston Astros could climb into first place of the NL Central this weekend? Can it really be that we'll wake up on Monday morning and discover that the Astros will be in a position to actually start pulling away with the division lead?

They just swept the St. Louis Cardinals, after all, and there's no way this team should have been able to sweep the Cardinals, especially with Chris Coste starting at first base the last two games. And this weekend the Astros have the struggling New York Mets coming into town, so it's just possible the Astros could pull off the sweep once again.

The Mets, after all, are a team devastated by injuries, even more so than the Astros. Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, and Jose Reyes are all on the disabled list -- which means the morons don't get to boo Beltran this time out. The Mets rotation has been torn up by injuries.  The front office is in disarray, and the Philadelphia Phillies, Florida Marlins, and Atlanta Braves are all pulling away from the Mets. So the Mets are ripe for the sweep.

There's just one problem: neither Roy Oswalt nor Wandy Rodriguez is pitching this weekend. 

Then there's the fact that the team's most consistent reliever, Chris Sampson is still on the disabled list. And yesterday, Lance Berkman was placed on the 15-day disabled list, which means the Astros are stuck playing third-string catcher Chris Coste at first base because Berkman's backup, Darin Erstad, is also on the DL. Cecil Cooper could, of course, move Geoff Blum to first for a bit and let Jeff Keppinger or Edwin Maysonet get in some action at third. Of course, the team's got to be careful about the use of Keppinger and Maysonet because second baseman Kaz Matsui is playing injured -- yeah, I know, Matsui injured is such a major shock.  

The action starts tonight with Mike Hampton, who is 4-0 against the Pittsburgh Pirates and 1-7 against the rest of the National League, matching up against former Astros pitching prospect and one of the best pitchers in baseball, Johan Santana, who is 11-7 with a 2.92 ERA on the season. That match-up right there probably prevents any chance of the Astros getting a sweep. Saturday sees Russ Ortiz going up against a pitcher still to be determined, and Brian Moehler starts against Livan Hernandez on Sunday afternoon.

And after the Astros finish up with the Mets, they head out to Chicago to take on the Cubs for three games starting on Monday. The Cubs and Astros are currently tied for second place, so this series could help the Astros put some ground on the Cubbies. Luckily, Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt will be lined up to pitch the first two games of that series -- I never thought I would think that the Astros would be lucky to have Rodriguez set to start a game. Once they're done with the Cubs, it's off to St. Louis for a weekend series with the Cardinals, then it's back to Houston for three games with the San Francisco Giants -- the possessor of the best starting rotation in baseball -- and three games with the Milwaukee Brewers who are currently just one game behind the Astros and Cubs.

It's going to be tough for the Astros. The Astros used a weak schedule to gain ground on the rest of the division to end the first half of the season, but the Astros don't face a truly awful team again until August 21 when the Arizona Diamondbacks come to Houston for a three game series. After the Mets this weekend, every team Houston faces is in the midst of a playoff race, and each team poses challenges for the Astros. The Cubs' pitching staff is better, and Lou Piniella is a better manager than Cecil Cooper. The Cardinals match up talentwise, and Tony La Russa is the better manager. The Giants have far, far better pitching. The Brewers have the far, far better offense. The Marlins have youth and talent on their side.

And should the Astros survive the rest of this month and August, September is no better. They'll play the Cubs twice, the Phillies seven times, the Braves three times, the Brewers three times, and the Cardinals three times.  

In short, I just don't see how this Astros team gets into the playoffs. I think they're an aging, injury-prone team that doesn't have a deep enough bench or pitching staff. So if you're going to see the Astros in first place this season, then this is the time to see it.

Then again, I've been wrong about this team most of the season, so I'm sure I'll just keep on being wrong.

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